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A few weeks ago, I posted about my introductory lecture for the American literature course I am teaching at the University of Bergen, and over the past few posts I have been discussing various aspects of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Today, I want to share with you my lecture for Twain’s novel, walking you through my thought process and why I chose to organize it the way I did. Since I only have 90 minutes per lecture, I cannot discuss every aspect of the novel that I would like, so I had to make some decisions regarding what I wanted students to take away from the lecture.
Just as I did for the last lecture, I start off by presenting students with a list of questions that will guide them throughout the course of the session. Again, these questions are not all encompassing, but I think they get to some of the main issues of the novel. I ask students,
- What challenges do people bring against The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? Do you agree or disagree with these challenges?
- Some claim that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a masterpiece and one of the greatest American novels. Others disagree with this assessment. Based on what you have learned, which side do you agree with?
- Illustrations play a large role in our reading of texts. How do E.W. Kemble’s illustrations, and his other work, affect your reading and understanding of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?
- Twain emphasizes the power of language in subjugating individuals. Where do we see Twain addressing the issue of language and its power in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?
As you can see, these questions force students to engage with debates surrounding Twain’s novel and to draw their own conclusions based on the evidence provided. As well, they ask students to think about the paraliterary aspects of the text, specifically E.W. Kemble’s illustrations. The final question deals directly with the novel and the way that Twain addresses issues of language. Within the questions, I have students think about the different ways we can approach any text.
Since it’s initial publication, people have challenged Twain’s novel, removing it from libraries and arguing that it should not be taught in schools. This is an important aspect for students to consider, seeing as they are reading the novel in class. For the presentation, I want students to see how the challenges to Huck Finn have changed over the years. Initially, some critics and communities saw the book’s humor and Huck’s character as immoral. The Concord public library is merely one example. Later, though, the issue of Twain’s representation of Black characters, specifically Jim, became the issue. Along with Twain’s depictions, challenge arose due to his use of the N-word over 200 times in the novel.
Every year, a case appears where individuals challenge a school district over whether or not the books should be included in the classroom. One of the most recent examples occurred in Duluth, MN. Speaking about the challenge,
Stephan Witherspoon, president of the Duluth chapter of the NAACP, called the move “long overdue.”
The literature has “oppressive language for our kids” Witherspoon said, and school should be an environment where children of color are learning equally. There are other novels with similar messages that can be taught, he said.
“Our kids don’t need to read the ‘N’ word in school,” Witherspoon said. “They deal with that every day out in the community and in their life. Racism still exists in a very big way.”
I have slides arguing for the importance of Huck Finn, and I have this slide with Witherspoon’s comments because it is important to consider the ways that students react to language. However, I also have a slide from Joceyln A. Chadwick where she argues that the novel “goes where Americans really don’t want to go” and causes us to feel uncomfortable. If this is the case, then how do we approach the novel with students.
After talking about some of the reasons the book has been challenged/banned, I move into how Huck Finn became recognized as one of the quintessential American novels. Here, I provide quotes from Ernest Hemingway and T.S. Eliot. Hemingway even says, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” Is this true? To counter the assertions of Eliot and Hemingway, I move to African American authors and how they view the novel. I begin with Ernest Gaines because he sees Twain as commenting on society. Toni Morrison directly addresses the problems with Huck Finn, specifically the relationship between Jim and Huck and Huck’s silent engagement, that does not lead to his liberation from, with a racist society. I conclude this section with a quote and video James Baldwin focusing on the power of language and its construction.
Baldwin’s comments lead into other items that affect our reading of Huck Finn. I begin this section by focusing on where “nigger Jim” originates. Twain does not use the N-word directly before Jim in the novel. This is important because even though Huck uses that word to refer to individuals, even Jim, he does not use it as an appellation for Jim. The use of the the N-word before Jim originated in Albert Bigelow Paine’s biography in 1912 and even appears on a sign in Hannibal, MO. This is worth thinking about and discussing with students. How does Paine’s appellation for Jim influence our reception of Twain’s novel?
Like Paine, Kemble’s illustrations affect the ways that readers view the novel and its characters. I wrote about this in the previous post. In the presentation, I begin with Kemble’s description of his model Cort Morris then move into some of Kemble’s other work, specifically his work on Paul Laurence Dunbar’s short story collections and his book Kemble’s Coons: A Collection of Southern Sketches (1897), both of which highlight the racist stereotypes and caricatures that Kemble’s artwork perpetuated. From here, I move into some of the images I talked about in the last post, most notably the positioning of Jim in relation to Huck.
I conclude the presentation by looking at how Twain addresses issues of language. For the lecture, I do not focus on everything I have written about in previous posts. I begin with Huck swearing on the dictionary, then I focus on the differences between “borrow” and “steal” at various points in the novel. I do this because I think that the way that Twain approaches these words provides a good example of what he is doing throughout the novel. We also have a seminar session for Huck Finn, so I expand upon these issues in a smaller setting. Specifically, I expand upon Kemble’s illustrations and Twain’s use of language.