This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.
In this, the year of Mark Twain, a century after he died and the year that his autobiography is finally going to be published, I can’t help but wax poetic on the man and his place in American letters, and put in my two cents on his presence in the high school curriculum. I often hear fellow English teachers lament the teaching of Twain in general, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in particular; with enduring controversies about the book’s attitudes toward race, it’s easy to understand why.
Some typical comments: “I hated that book in high school myself.” “I can’t get past when those two guys come in—and neither can the kids.” “I dread teaching Huck Finn.” I faced my own concerns when I first dealt with the book as teacher. Sure, Twain can be hard to sell. And I didn’t “get” Huckleberry Finn when I read it in high school either. Why? And why should we insist that our students read it?
One reason we should still read Twain’s novel is because the many controversies surrounding it provide a helpful perspective on our collective history. I’ve found that approaching the book by presenting the controversies to students makes it much more accessible to them. Giving them permission to criticize a novel they’re assigned to read, a novel that was banned from many schools and libraries, suddenly makes the task of reading it much more palatable.
Though I can’t can save Twain from his own weaknesses in the novel’s structure (weaknesses that, if acknowledged, can help to explain our collective teacher-student reaction to the novel as a whole), there is something about Huck himself that redeems the entire experience every time students meet him.
Looking at Huck through the lens of Socratic irony helps to place the book more clearly into the time period in which it was written; at the same time this approach helps us to “hear” Huck, as well as distinguish Huck the narrator from Twain the author.
This year I’m trying something new. I assigned Uncle Tom’s Cabin for summer reading, so when we begin to read Huck Finn, my students will have a reference point to fully grasp Jane Smiley’s position in her piece, “Say It Ain’t So, Huck: Second Thoughts on Twain’s ‘Masterpiece.’” Now they will have a little more background when their American History teacher talks about Harriet Beecher Stowe’s influence in the years before the Civil War. It’s been my thought that if students read both of these novels and looked at their publishing histories, they will have a more insightful understanding of racial issues in America as well. Seeing what became of Uncle Tom in the years following the Civil War is a critical piece of our racial history, too.
In AP® Language class, Huck Finn is perfect for a researched position paper on one of the controversial aspects of the book. Luckily I’m permitted to have students purchase their own books in my school, so I’ve been using the Bedford edition, which includes highly readable critical articles on race, the ending of the novel, and gender. Twain has managed to endure in our curriculum for many reasons, not least of which is that he’s worth arguing about. Is Huck Finn truly an antislavery novel? If it was intended to be, did Twain succeed?
Here are some Web links that can enhance your Huck Finn experience this year:
- Twain and Stowe Houses, Hartford, CT: If you’re within reach of Hartford, Twain and Stowe lived across the street from one another. If not, you can visit the sites online.
- New York: The Morgan Library and the New York Public Library are running a joint exhibit, “A Skeptic’s Progress.”
- Newsweek: Read “Our Mysterious Stranger” and the accompanying excerpt from the soon-to-be-released autobiography.
- Time magazine: View the photo gallery of Mark Twain.
[Photo: MARK TWAIN -- A Long Lost Photo? Creative Commons licensed.]
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