Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Barrie Summy's October Book Review - They banned old Huck Finn

This post is part of Barrie's Summy October Book Review which are always posted on the first Wednesday in each month - and as we have just come out of banned books week I have decided to talk a little about Huckleberry Finn which is indeed banned in many libraries and schools in both the UK and US. In fact in the US the book is actually the fourth most banned book.

Now I only read Huckleberry Finn for the first time last year - together with Tom Sawyer it came pre-installed on my eReader. Of course I knew the story well from the various film and TV versions I've seen over the years but had never actually read the book. Maybe if the books hadn't been bundled on the eReader then I never would have - I'm glad I did. Both are excellent books and I think Huck Finn is one of the best books I have ever read.

Now the book is often banned because of it's continual use of the word, "nigger". Now it's not always used in a particularly racist way but it is used a lot - on one page I counted the word 23 times. And whilst I don't agree with banning any book I can see a reason for the books use being limited in schools. Maybe it's not for the very young but once a child reaches a certain level of maturity then of course they should study the book.  And as I've said the book is of its time rather than racist. Huck is firm friends with a runaway slave called Jim and the two have some thrillingly written adventures together but Huck refers to Jim throughout as, "nigger". It was an accepted word at the time and even if it is unacceptable today and would never be used by any right thinking person, it was very much in common use back in the day.
Banning the book serves no good purpose and is a far greater crime than allowing children to read it and opening the subject up for discussion. Discussing with children how we, as people, have changed and how the "N" word can be cruel and hurtful is a useful lesson in itself. There is no reason to ban such a wonderful book from one of the all time great writers merely because it reflects the times in which it was written.

If Huck Finn is racist then Mark Twain was also racist which means we should also ban Tom Sawyer, Merry Tales, Roughing It,  Innocents Abroad and all the other works the prolific author produced. Where does it stop? Let's ban the entire Twain bibliography..

Or then again we could give readers credit for their intelligence and allow them to decide for themselves - in no way is Huckleberry Finn racist. In fact it was ground-breaking for its time and very controversial because of its portrayal of the friendship between a white boy and a black man. And whilst it is true that the story uses racial stereotypes this can also be argued as being consistent with the times in which it was written. And besides the friendship between Huck and Jim can be seen as hitting out against racist views and attacking racism itself. However there is also a camp that claims that Twain was unable to rise above racist stereotypes and used the character of Jim for the comedic racial effect that white readers of the time enjoyed.

The more I think about it the more uncertain I become about the suitability of the book for young children, but I don't think banning it is the answer. Is it racist? I don't think so and am of the opinion that Twain humanises the character of Jim and does therefore strike a blow against racism.

Decide for yourself is what I say...


Barrie said...

I completely agree; Huck shouldn't be banned. I read Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer as a kid and LOVED them. I think I might even have imagined myself as Becky. ;)

Randy Johnson said...

I have a black friend who doesn't understand why the book was banned either, knowing it a book of it's time, which of course doesn't make it racist.

He also doesn't approve of blacks casually using the word in conversation amongst themselves. It's demmening and racist even in that context.

Sarah Laurence said...

I remember reading this for English class in high school. Our teacher explained why the offensive word was in the text and placed it in its historical context. It’s hard to imagine not growing up with Huck Finn. Great review!

Charles Gramlich said...

My favorite of TWain's books. I enjoyed imagining myself on that river.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I doubt many young children could make their way through this one. The language is difficult. I liked it as an adult but not as much as other Twain books despite its iconic status.

Beth Yarnall said...

I read this book in middle school. I knew enough then to recognize the 'N' word as wrong and no one had to explain to me that in Twain's time it was just what you called black people much in the same way my grandparents used the word 'colored'.
I loved this book. Like Charles, I imagined myself on that river, having those adventures. Thanks for a great review.

Lucy said...

I read this for the first time last year too. I absolutely loved it. Great review! :)