BAN HUCKLEBERRY FINN (AGAIN)!

It’s already one of the most banned books in the United States. Why bother to ban it all over again?

These days it’s mostly the “N” word that gets the book taken off school library shelves. There are still plenty of people, mostly of the older generation, for whom that word is so fraught that they don’t want to see or hear it used under any circumstances, even in a work of literature. Perhaps in past days the reason Huckleberry Finn was kept from the impressionable minds of the young had more to do with its presenting the South in an unfavorable light. But my contention after four readings of the book is that it should be banned now, right now, because it contains downright seditious material.

It should be prohibited on at least two grounds: First, the book is unpatriotic, is in fact anti-American. Second, it is immoral. In fact it goes right to the heart of the bedrock of our morality and makes of it a mockery.

I’ll address the second offense first. I’m referring, of course to the episode in one of the small towns along the Mississippi that Huck visits. A local storekeeper is being harassed by a fellow townsmen who stands outside his store and holds him up to scorn. The shopkeeper warns the man that if he doesn’t desist he will be shot dead. The harasser does not desist, and the shopkeeper shoots him, much to the delight of the other townspeople, who seem to enjoy a good killing to break up the monotony.

The scene then shifts to the shopkeeper’s home outside of which an old-fashioned lynch mob has gathered (both these scenes could have been lifted out of a Hollywood Western, no doubt inspired those Westerns, however indirectly). The shopkeeper, a man of few words who means what he says, appears on his porch with a gun and challenges the crowd to do what they have come for. He not only challenges, he ridicules, telling them that one or two of their number are “half a man,” but the rest are no better than an “army” which — and here comes the sedition — is no better than a “mob of cowards“!

But my first reason for banning the book is even more serious. The incident with the shopkeeper could possibly be written off, with some expert academic help, as not really the author’s opinion but only that of the character. But Huck Finn’s long wrestle with his conscience about allowing Jim the slave to go free, to aid and abet him in the quest for that freedom, occupies much too great a part of the book not to question the author’s intent. When, despite knowing it is not only criminal but morally wrong to deprive someone of their property, in this case their human property, Huck Finn does so anyway, accepting the fact of his guilt, even of his condemnation to hellfire, as a consequence, he makes it clear he has done exactly what his conscience told him not to do.

What’s a conscience for if not to guide us toward good and away from evil? Do we really want to give our young people the message that conscience is only a repository for whatever society accepts as right or wrong at that particular moment? If so, are we prepared to take the consequences?

I say it isn’t worth the risk. Therefore, I submit Huckleberry Finn should be removed from all public and academic library shelves, with the exception of special permission to be granted for its perusal by accredited and approved scholars whose intent is the study of seditious literature for the purpose of protecting society from its corrosive effects.

I hope you will write your congressperson to urge him or her to pass appropriate legislation without delay.

(For my thoughts on reactions to this piece, I invite you to read the follow-up I wrote to it called “Ban the N-Word?”)

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About Thomas J. Hubschman

Thomas J. Hubschman is the author of Look at Me Now, My Bess, Song of the Mockingbird, Billy Boy, Father Walther’s Temptation, The Jew’s Wife & Other Stories and three science fiction novels. His work has appeared in New York Press, The Antigonish Review, Eclectica, The Blue Moon Review and many other publications. Two of his short stories were broadcast on the BBC World Service.

Posted on February 12, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 29 Comments.

  1. Letter written. And I will no longer teach Flannery O’Connor, either.

    • God bless you. You are a true Amerikan.

      • You spelled AMERICAN wrong. You must (not) be a true AmeriCan.

      • The word nigger is used by characters who are set in a time in which that word was used as much as any other word. People today over-react so much over pointless words. Negro’s call each other nigger and whites crackers. A word is only as offensive as a person allows it to be.

  2. I disagree with you banning Huck Finn is equivalent to banning all of American Literature, Mark Twain illustrated what the time period was like back then, not on what he actually believed in, therefore Huck FInn should not be banned.

  3. The standards of today’s literary material are far more stringent with regards to political correctness than when Twain wrote this book. In fact, the Book says the “N” word 216 times. People will argue that” this book was written at a time that it was common to say the “N” word and portray blacks at laughable characters”. That was a long time ago, societies acceptance would have changed since then. Society, as a whole, must be able to accept and connect with all races to be able to function in harmony. If society doesn’t function then schools and governments cannot discourage bullying and segregation thought the world because they have the audacity to have a policy on equality. How will the next generation learn not to be racist when they are teaching it in class rooms.

  4. Thanks very much for your very thoughtful comment. I actually agree with every word of it. I realize now I should have expanded on the subject more than I did.

    What I see differently from those who would ban or alter Huckleberry Finn is the way the word is used in the book itself, the meaning it has there, not just in today’s society (which is a very mixed bag, as I pointed out in my follow-up piece to this one (https://thewriterstreehut.wordpress.com/2014/02/03/ban-the-n-word/), meaning different things to different generations alive today, for example.

    My impression — I’m a Northerner, so I admit to having to deal with most of this second-hand — is that the N-word was used in many different ways even in the ante-bellum South. Huck, for instance, having no particular animus against African-Americans uses the word as, probably, the only one he knew, with more or less a neutral intent — which is not to say the word itself was neutral, only that he uses it that way and uses so often that way that, I believe, the reader comes to understand it in that way as well.

    I can imagine a novel in which the narrator used the word “guinea” or “yid” in a similar way. The words are offensive, but if the novel is written in the first person by an unsophisticated adolescent, I think the use of the word would not only be appropriate but necessary. When I worked in East Harlem many years ago, for instance, a Puerto Rican girl would praise the good looks of a Puerto Rican boy by saying, He’s as good-looking as a guinea (the Italian Americans in East Harlem having been the enemies, by the way, of the Puerto Ricans). When I turn on my radio I sometimes pick up a local transmission from one of the Hassidic neighborhoods here in Brooklyn, and I hear them refer to Jews as Yids, a carry-over from the Yiddish word into English, I assume, and one they consider to be more accurate, just as immigrants tend to find in their own languages expressions more compelling than an American expression that is actually just as good if not better.

    I think — and I very much would like to hear your own thoughts on this point, as well as on any other I’ve raised — that it’s as important to teach children about the complexity and subtleties of expression, prejudice, etc, as it is to teach them not to offend others, even without intending to do so. There are, to be sure, the issues you raise, and it takes a good teacher to deal with all of this without either making it seem simplistic or so complicated no one can come to any conclusions about it.

    If you are interested in reading some of my serious thoughts about “race” in America, a topic hard to cover or even start to get into in the short format of a blog (hence my choice to speak in the voice of a proponent of banning the book), I invite you to look at my essay “Dirty Linen” in Eclectica magazine (http://www.eclectica.org/v9n2/hubschman_salon.html).

    Thanks again for chiming in. I look forward to any further thoughts in response what I have said.

  5. Your first argument is not even valid. The people are NOT delighted when the shopkeeper shoots the town-drunk. Maybe you should READ the book before banning it.

    • I certainly will reread that section. I do remember the townspeople’s reaction being as if something had happened that had broken up the monotony of their daily lives.

      I wonder if you disagree, though, with my main points, i.e. that there is real “sedition” in that book and that the N-word is in a way just a diversion from it. I put the word “sedition” in quotes because I don’t consider it to be such. In fact, I consider this book to be perhaps the best work of any American author. Twain liked to take a contrary view to that of the majority. We shouldn’t be surprised that he saw conscience as something constructed by society rather than by a God.

      You might also have a look at my follow-up to this posting (https://thewriterstreehut.wordpress.com/2014/02/03/ban-the-n-word/), my reaction to the response it had gotten and continues to get — for instance, the real distress the word causes for older African Americans versus the way it’s seen by the younger generations.

      In any case, thanks very much for your input.

  6. RandomEnglishStudent

    I really hope that this was intentionally a satirical piece. If it was then congratulations, you have outdone yourself. If it wasn’t, then you might want to learn about satire and then reread your essay from a different perspective.

  7. 1). Mark Twain is not communicating to his audience that the immoral actions and language used in Huckleberry Finn are proper, it was more of a reality book. Things did happen, people used the “N” word frequently, there were plenty of drunken fools and immoral townsfolk around, and Mark Twain simply wanted his audience to realize the reality of the time period. It would be as daft as banning any writings or manuscripts of the holocaust. It is history, and should not be touched. It must be accepted as a fact, and we must realize that we have progressed greatly from that wicked time. If you are for banning Huckleberry Finn, by golly, may as well ban your whole history book. However, some may argue that is different from history, but it is not. It is simply a more personal and shaped view of that time period, a first person dialect, rather than facts and a textbook. Some people may see the book to be racist, but if they are to take it that way, may as well ban any history or dialect that conveys any immoral language.

    2). The use of the “N” word is not inappropriate. Yes we should not say it. Yes it is a cruel word, but it is not the same as other cuss words. To me it communicates a time of inequality and injustice that once was. It tells the story of how such a cruel time was conquered by the just minds of the American government, and the progress we have made to establish all equality to everyone. The fact that we are even having this debate proves my point even more. The fact that what once was a very common word, thrown around non nonchalantly to cruelly determine someone’s ethnicity, and that it is now a word that is considerably going to ban a classic piece of American Literature – perhaps one of the most iconic works of American authors – only goes to show the progression America has made in the pursuit of happiness and equality.

    3). The banning of Huckleberry Finn violates the constitution. It is American’s rights to share their opinions, their views, their words with their fellow people. Those people who want to ban it put their opinions higher than others, saying that they are right, and that it should be banned, and I think that is exactly what the constitution was trying to forbid with the 1st amendment.

    “The First Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble or prohibiting the petitioning …”
    This situation, arguably, is exactly what the 1st amendment was made for.

  8. When I was a university professor in the States, a highly-distinguished Harvard professor published his research concluding that American Blacks were, on average, genetically less intelligent than Whites. My students asked me to join a protest at his being asked to present his findings at UCLA in California. I refused. Not because I agreed with his findings, but because I argued that if we didn’t listen to how he had reached his conclusions, we could not reasonably comprehensibly disagree. As a matter of fact, his research was, in my opinion, hugely flawed as a result of his equating White and Black cultures in the States. Following this incident, the whole question of measuring intelligence became one of my major professional foci and frequently the source of class discussion and debate.

    If we had banned the subject as being racist, people would have been free to continue to believe that Blacks are indeed less intelligent, but that it was simply politically incorrect to say so.

    And so I am not much in favor of banning Huckleberry Finn. I do appreciate, though, that if it is taught in schools, it takes an insightful and talented teacher to help students analyze it. I think in many ways it is a superb example of the assumptions and actions in relation to Blacks in those days. If we want to understand ourselves, what it was and to some extent still is to be Black, and decide how to make American values applicable to all of us whatever our ethnic background, Huckleberry Finn can teach us a lot.

  9. I would just like to say, for the record, that your primary contention regarding Huck’s morality should be held in high scrutiny. As a junior in high school who has just finished reading and analyzing Twain’s novel, I would like to point out the erroneous conclusion that was made about Huck ignoring his conscience. Quite on the contrary, Huck managed to overcome his racism (in this instance) and follow his moral compass. To say that “he has done exactly what his conscience told him not to do” is not only a complete and total fallacy, but also a blatant misinterpretation of the novel.

    I do not have the time nor the desire to refute each point you have made here, Mr. Hubschman. Respectfully, I should like to criticize this article for not only containing flimsy evidence based on insubstantial claims, but I would also recommend a more thorough understanding of Twain’s purpose for writing the book and the content held within.

    As a side note, I do not believe that claiming this American classic to be “unpatriotic” is the best contention in the world.

    As long as people continue to ignore the difficult questions and topics in our history, we will continue to censor novels like Huck Finn.

    I suppose you would have me discard this book along with every other classic novel that challenges popular thought, would you? Allow me to think about that for a second.

    Hmmm…nope.

    It would be foolish to ban this novel, so for those out there who prefer ignorance, please just make it a personal decision.

    Respectfully,
    A humble teenager

    • Thank you very much, Austen, for your thoughtful comments. You may be “a humble teenager,” but your gray matter is certainly in good working order.

      I disagree with you about what I see as Huck’s violation of his conscience. You are right that he chooses to follow his moral compass, what he feels in the deepest part of him to be right. But I think he also makes it clear that he believes his choice, to help Jim go free, is a sin for which he will pay with hell. He says as much. He confuses real morality, what is truly right, with what he has been taught is right.

      That’s the great achievement of this novel, isn’t it: to stand on their head values the average person considers sacrosanct (“challenge popular thought,” as you put it). Don’t forget, most churches in the South preached that morality was moral, even divinely ordained. Southerners had to believe that, or at least convince themselves they did, in order to maintain a system that most of the Western world, including founders of this republic, were embarrassed by.

      So, while I agree totally with your statement,”As long as people continue to ignore the difficult questions and topics in our history, we will continue to censor novels like Huck Finn,” I see people censuring Huckleberry Finn for the wrong reasons, namely its language. There is much more “dangerous” material there—i.e., a young man choosing, heroically I think, to violate the dearest-held norms of his society, the very law of God as that society saw it, not because he _believes_ slavery is wrong but because in the case of Jim, he feels it to be so in a part of him that knows right from wrong better than his “conscience” does.

      I guess you can see by now that I wrote this piece tongue-in-cheek. Don’t feel embarrassed that you missed that. Most people who have read it, most of whom are well beyond their teenage years, have also missed it. Sometimes the best way to drive home a point is to appear to take the part of the argument you are actually against.

      Thanks again for taking the time to read this piece. I would be very interested to hear your reaction to my thoughts on Ferguson, (https://thewriterstreehut.wordpress.com/2014/12/09/hands-up-why-we-all-cant-breathe/) a very much up-to-date subject not unrelated to the ones raised by this novel.

      -Tom (a humble [I hope] adult)

  10. THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR WRITING THIS!!! You have no idea how hard it was for me to find an article with a level of bigotry such as this to finish writing my research paper. In any other situation I would most likely disprove all of your points in one fell swoop, but quite frankly I would see it as a complete waste of my time to try to debate with a conservative of your caliber.

    • Chano – I have read with some astonishment your comment ironically thanking the Writer in the Treehut for his presentation.

      When I was a graduate student in psychology, I fought against a demonstration by my fellow students demanding that a high-level professor from Harvard should be barred from presenting his talk on his research which he believed showed that Black Americans were on average genetically less intelligent than White Americans.

      I totally disagreed with this professor’s position, but this is a country which protects the right to free speech. However, with that right comes the responsibility to be willing to defend one’s position so that there is a chance to disagree with the evidence. Ultimately, this professor did present his evidence, which over the years has been greatly disproved by those who are acquainted with the severe limitations of his evidence and its subsequent bias. However, if we had not been permitted to hear his point of view, many would have believed that there was indeed scientific evidence showing Blacks are less intelligent but that it had been suppressed as “politically incorrect.”

      I don’t know how many posts on The Writers Treehut you have read, but I find it impossible to understand where you are coming from in your accusation of bigotry.

      I would ask you, therefore, for all of us who read this blog, to explain your reasoning. Otherwise, I am left with the suspicion that your accusation is not only wrong but unfounded. If you explain your thinking, I can at least listen to what you have to say and decide if there is, indeed, something I have missed in reading this blog.

      • I was coming from a sarcastic standpoint where I, as a highschool student, was required to write an essay on comparing and contrasting the two standpoints on whether to ban or not to ban Huck Finn; in which I had an extreme amount of trouble trying to come across an article that was all for banning the book.

      • Thank you for your explanation. I did not realize you were speaking ironically. Sometimes I think it is harder to pick up via the written word when there are no facial expressions or a tone of voice to supplement the silent word.

    • Same here, I had the same problem!

  11. Mark twain explored society’s downfalls specifically in the south. Huck was raised his whole life to believe slavery was ok. So when he saves Jim it goes against what all his society says is right. Huck realizes for himself that he does care if it’s wrong to save another man he’ll do it because he loves him. He’s choosing to do right. It’s a book full of satire and criticism of the racism in southern society. I can’t believe someone who runs a writers website wouldn’t understand this book. Ironic.

  12. Thanks for your comments, Titus. I invite you to have a look at the follow-up I posted at:
    https://thewriterstreehut.wordpress.com/2014/02/03/ban-the-n-word/

    You may then see the original posting in a more sympathetic way.

  13. The N word is used by the characters because the novel is set in a time period where the word was actually ok to use. Not only should it not be banned, there should be a law for it to be taught at schools. Also, censorship is a violation of the freedom of speech.

  14. Thanks for your comments, Jim. I invite you to read the follow-up piece I wrote to this one: https://thewriterstreehut.wordpress.com/2014/02/03/ban-the-n-word/

  15. I believe that if you think that this book should be banned you are so far to the left and you probably are unreachable. However I’ll give it a try. A book like this can be used one of two ways either can be used constructively for you to teach the points of the ignorance that this country went through and how it had been and how it has evolved to where we currently have President of the United States who is not white not once but twice elected. …..that in Twain’s time probably would have been absolutely unheard of or fictional. But yet we have evolved to that point, to ban this book because the contents in it most people find offensive .Keep in mind your time and that most of you younger people who are reading this …..living now is light years away from when that book was written. It can be either for the ignorant people who are still stuck in that time frame and without question there are some that are still stuck in that time frame or to the other people who simply want to say hey ( this is what we were ,people actually used to think like this ). But the bottom line is this Banning the book you might as well have a good old Nazi book-burning what other books would you like to ban would you like to ban the Koran because I as a Christian I find it highly offensive because I’m referred to as an Infidel and it best I deserve a quick death? How about To Kill a Mockingbird? There are a lot of writings by Jeremiah Wright along with Malcolm X that a lot of people might find offensive should everything they’ve written be banned? I believe this is a prime example of political correctness gone nuts. But as a 57 year old that’s just my opinion. I have plenty of friends of many different races I have a biracial family and quite frankly I think that it would be against the Constitution for you to ban it and to say that someone needs to have restricted access I find that quite offensive by itself. We read this book in the sixth grade our teachers were competent enough to be able to explain to us the book How It Was Written why it was written and how to interpret it. if you have that little confidence in your teacher that you think they need restricted access or that the book needs to be banned we really got a problem in this country. Un American to me coming from my background is someone who dodges the draft and then runs for political office but what do I know.

  16. I would just like to say Mr. Hubschman that while I disagree with the view in your piece I think you do raise very good points, and finding ways to disprove them, (for a paper like many others) is a fun challenge. I noticed in one reply that you said you wrote this tongue-in-cheek and was wondering if you actually were against the opinion that is supported in you writing? If so you did very well to argue the other side.

    I would also like to acknowledge how politely you responded to comments that used a very rude tone while trying to argue against you. I know its tough to keep a level head while arguing a point, especially on the internet, and I think many others on different sites could learn a thing or two from not resorting to cruel words right away.

  17. Thanks very much for your thoughts, Amanda. They are much appreciated.

  1. Pingback: Ban the N-Word? | The Writer's Treehut

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