Mark Twain's 1884 masterpiece The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been widely regarded as America's greatest novel. Twain's rich comic genius is on display here, of course, and it tells a great road story centered in a pair of improbable companions: one white, one black; one free, one enslaved; one a youth just entering early manhood, the other a dignified Black man seeking his freedom.
Until recently, Huckleberry Finn was widely taught in high schools and colleges. But it uses a vile racial epithet more than 200 times in about as many pages. This makes it toxic as assigned reading material at any level of the American educational system. The novel is now "offensive to some, troubling to everyone," as one cultural critic recently put it.
Author and humanities scholar Clay Jenkinson considers the controversial issues surrounding the book—ones that are not unique to Huck Finn. Should we retire the novel permanently? Should we silently alter that taboo word to something less offensive? Should we continue to teach the book, but with plenty of disclaimers, context, and warnings? And what would be lost when a work of literature—one that chronicles the triumph of an improbable friendship that transcends law and race—disappears?
Jenkinson’s discussion gives equal time to the topic of Twain and race, as well as the themes, characters, imagery, and prose strategies of the novel.
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