Teaching Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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Teaching Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
by Shelley Fisher Fishkin

Dr. Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Professor of American Studies and English at the University of Texas, is the author of Lighting Out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture (Oxford University Press, 1997) and Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African American Voices (Oxford University Press, 1993). She is President of the Mark Twain Circle of America and editor of the 19-volume Oxford Mark Twain. Adapted from a talk given at the July 1995 Summer Teachers' Institute at The Mark Twain House, Hartford, Connecticut. ©1995 Shelley Fisher Fishkin. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Despite the fact that it is the most taught novel and most taught work of American literature in American schools from junior high to graduate school, Huckleberry Finn remains a hard book to read and a hard book to teach. The difficulty is caused by two distinct but related problems. First, one must understand how Socratic irony works if the novel is to make any sense at all; most students don't. Secondly, one must be able to place the novel in a larger historical and literary context -- one that includes the history of American racism and the literary productions of African-American writers -- if the book is to be read as anything more than a sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (which it both is and is not); most students can't. These two problems pose real obstacles for teachers. Are they surmountable? Under some circumstances, yes. Under others, perhaps not. I think under most circumstances, however, they are obstacles you can deal with.

It is impossible to read Huck Finn intelligently without understanding that Mark Twain's consciousness and awareness is larger than that of any of the characters in the novel, including Huck. Indeed, part of what makes the book so effective is the fact that Huck is too innocent and ignorant to understand what's wrong with his society and what's right about his own transgressive behavior. Twain, on the other hand, knows the score. One must be skeptical about most of what Huck says in order to hear what Twain is saying. In a 1991 interview, Ralph Ellison suggested that critics who condemn Twain for the portrait of Jim that we get in the book forget that "one also has to look at the teller of the tale, and realize that you are getting a black man, an adult, seen through the condescending eyes -- partially -- of a young white boy." Are you saying, I asked Ellison, "that those critics are making the same old mistake of confusing the narrator with the author? That they're saying that Twain saw him that way rather than that Huck did?" "Yes," was Ellison's answer.

Clemens as a child accepted without question, as Huck did, the idea that slaves were property; neither wanted to be called a "low-down Abolitionist" if he could possibly help it. Between the time of that Hannibal childhood and adolescence, however, and the years in which Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn, Twain's consciousness changed. By 1885, when the book was published, Samuel Clemens held views that were very different from those he ascribed to Huck. It might be helpful at this point to chart for your students the growth of the author's developing moral awareness on the subject of race and racism -- starting with some of his writings on the persecution of the Chinese in San Francisco (such as Disgraceful Persecution of a Boy), then moving through his marriage into an abolitionist family, the 1869 anti-lynching editorial that he published in The Buffalo Express entitled Only a Nigger, and his exposure to figures like Frederick Douglass and his father-in-law, Jervis Langdon.

By the time he wrote Huckleberry Finn, Samuel Clemens had come to believe not only that slavery was a horrendous wrong, but that white Americans owed black Americans some form of "reparations" for it. One graphic way to demonstrate this fact to your students is to share...
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