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If we lived in a world in which racism had been eliminated generations before, teaching Huck Finn would be a piece of cake. The difficulties we have teaching this book reflect the difficulties we continue to confront in our classrooms and our nation.
As educators, it is incumbent upon us to teach our students to decode irony, to understand history, and to be repulsed by racism and bigotry wherever they find it. It's unfair to force one novel to bear the burden -- alone -- of addressing these issues and solving these problems.
As Ralph Ellison observed in our interview, it is this irony at the core of the American experience that Mark Twain forces us to confront head-on. When accomplished fiction writers expose the all-too-human betrayals that well-meaning human beings perpetrate in the name of business-as-usual, they disrupt the ordered rationalizations that insulate the heart from pain.
History as it is taught in the history classroom is often denatured and dry. Novelists, like surgeons, cut straight to the heart. They leave it open to heal or fester, depending on the septic level of the reader's own environment.First, one must understand how Socratic irony works if the novel is to make any sense at all; most students don't. I think under most circumstances, however, they are obstacles you can deal with.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. 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. 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)."We have ground the manhood out of them," Twain wrote Dean Wayland on Christmas Eve, 1885, "and the shame is ours, not theirs, & we should pay for it." Ask your students: why does a writer who holds these views create a narrator who is too innocent and ignorant to challenge the topsy-turvy moral universe that surrounds him?"All right, then, I'll go to Hell," Huck says when he decides not to return Jim to slavery.She is President of the Mark Twain Circle of America and editor of the 19-volume Oxford Mark Twain. 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.Adapted from a talk given at the July 1995 Summer Teachers' Institute at The Mark Twain House, Hartford, Connecticut. The difficulty is caused by two distinct but related problems.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 with them the letter Twain wrote to the Dean of the Yale Law School in 1885, in which he explained why he wanted to pay the expenses of Warner Mc Guinn, one of the first black law students at Yale.