It’s been a few years since someone has tried to ban Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” from a high school reading list. Some lawmakers in New Jersey are making sure the sanity doesn’t last too long.
As reported by Matt Friedman of Politico, New Jersey Assembly members Verlina Reynolds-Jackson (D-Mercer) and Jamel Holley (D-Union) have introduced non-binding resolution NJ ACR225, which calls on districts in the state to remove the novel from school curricula. Friedman summarizes the long-standing and oft-revisited controversy surrounding the book, noting, “Though filled with what many academics see as anti-racist and anti-slavery themes, ‘Huckleberry Finn’ presents an unvarnished depiction of the antebellum South and includes use of the n-word more than 200 times.”
When I was a young student teacher in Texas in the 1980s, one of my first assignments was to work through “Huckleberry Finn” with several classes of academically advanced high school juniors. I taught under the direction of an experienced teacher, who reviewed and approved my lesson plans before I presented them.
As my students and I began reading the novel, I had a frank conversation with them—only a few years younger than I—about the language they would be encountering. I explained that, while some of the words and attitudes in the book are rightly offensive to us today, they accurately reflect the time and place of the story and indicate the sickness of a society that condoned slavery as part of its modus operandi.
As we worked through the book’s difficult material, we often read passages aloud to more deeply consider the literary elements and social criticism they contained. My students, both white and black, handled the experience with maturity and thoughtfulness.
It has now been many years since I taught high school English. But I am no less convinced today than I was as a 22-year-old student teacher that Ernest Hemingway was right when he said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn.’” In its profound presentation of the universal theme of the individual versus society, the book should be a fixture on every American student’s high school reading list, today more than ever before.
Huck’s Moral Quandaries Inform Ours
The pivotal moment in “Huckleberry Finn” comes in chapter 31, when Huck is faced with the decision of whether to turn the runaway slave, Jim, in to the authorities. The moral impulse within Huck resists what his societal conditioning has taught him he should do.
Trying to do the “right” thing according to the law, he writes a letter to Jim’s owner, Miss Watson, alerting her to Jim’s whereabouts, and in so doing feels “washed clean of sin for the first time … in my life.” But as he reflects on his decision, he begins to doubt whether he can go through with it:
I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking … over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. … and then I happened to look around and see that paper. It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell’—and tore it up.
When Huck decides to disobey the law and protect Jim from capture, he sees it as indicating his own moral corruption, and resigns himself to going to hell. The irony, of course, is that Huck’s natural inclination—to protect his friend and help him gain freedom—is the right one. It is only because he has been so steeped in false teaching that he believes it to be wrong.
Twain described “Huckleberry Finn” as “a book of mine in which a sound heart & a deformed conscience come into collision & conscience suffers a defeat.” If Americans ever needed to read about deformed consciences, it’s in the 21st century, when the minds of our young are being attacked in increasingly disturbing and mind-boggling ways.
Our Society Fails to Grasp Right and Wrong
It is a deformed society that: tolerates the increasing sexualization of children; views children as tools for the fulfillment of adults; accepts the rearing of children without gender as a parenting “style”; considers the mutilation of children a reasonable treatment for gender dysphoria; tolerates the killing of the unborn as a societal necessity; allows the euthanasia of those deemed inconvenient or useless to be defined as mercy; and accepts pornography as mainstream entertainment.
Like Huck, we instinctively know right from wrong. We know that it’s wrong to take innocent, vulnerable life; that boys are boys and girls are girls and there’s no changing our God-given biology; that marriage is between a man and a woman for the rearing of children; and that sex outside of marriage is against God’s plan for creation.
But our consciences have been so deformed by nonstop brainwashing that we can find ourselves doubting what we know deep down to be true. We may not go as far as to embrace abortion and euthanasia, but we too often look the other way while the ubiquitous voices of the media, academia, government and popular culture have their way with our children. We need to stop allowing the deforming of both our own consciences and those of our children.
In a 1996 essay on “Huckleberry Finn,” Toni Morrison wrote that a 1980s campaign to remove the book from classrooms “struck me as a purist yet elementary kind of censorship designed to appease adults rather than educate children” and concluded that the book “cannot be … dismissed. It is classic literature, which is to say it heaves, manifests and lasts.”
Yes, it lasts. As long as we don’t stuff it down the political correctness memory hole, it will continue to do so, helping future generations of American schoolchildren ponder the meaning of conscience, responsibility, and freedom.