Teaching Huck Finn Without Regret

The joys of teaching Huck Finn to today's youth.

In 1994, against the advice of a fellow English teacher, I began teaching The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to my 11th graders. I was alerted that embarrassment, offense and anger were inevitable. "Sooner or later," my colleague warned, "a student will protest, a parent will complain."

Too foolishly stubborn to heed that veteran wisdom, I snatched every available copy of Huck Finn from our supply room and passed them out to my students. Together, we began reading. The experience proved such a pleasure, I taught the book again the following year. This is the truth: In the five years I taught American literature, from 1994 to 1999, my class's study of Huck Finn was always, by far, the most enjoyably authentic reading experience of the school year.

For a teacher to abandon Huck Finn out of fear and timidity is, in my view, a shame. The novel is a staple of American literature and, in its own right, of American history, too. This fact alone, however, is not what recommends the novel to the modern curriculum. Huck Finn is that rare classic which grabs modern students' attention and elicits a genuine response. I never had to explain to a student why she should be interested in the book. I never needed to pray that enough students had been paying attention to provide us with a bona fide discussion. With Huck Finn, interest was virtually automatic, and the lessons of the novel rose naturally from the reading.

Welcome to realism!
At the time of its original publication in 1885, propriety's guardians condemned the novel because its title character was a rebellious child. Welcome to realism! Some modern critics scoff at the "realism" label, panning the book's "stereotypical caricatures." Yet careful readers discover wonderfully complex and realistic characters. Huck is rebellious, as all children, especially untutored ones, tend to be; Pap is revolting, as unfettered racist drunkards tend to be; Jim is illiterate, as antebellum slaves tended to be. To depict Jim as professorial or Huck as a little sweetie-pie -- as some modern adaptations try to do -- is absurd.

An appreciation of this point is crucial to teaching Huck Finn effectively: Students must be allowed to enjoy the book as rollickingly realistic fiction, and the first element in achieving this enjoyment is the instructor's own appreciation of Huck Finn as story. When the novel is delivered simply as a vehicle for preaching the evils of racism, it is reduced to propaganda. American students never have shown, nor ever will show, a hearty interest in party-line propaganda. This, perhaps, was the concern behind Twain's famous "Notice" preceding Chapter One: "Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot will be shot." Of course, there is a plot, meandering as it may be, and, likewise, there is a moral or two. But, first and foremost, there is a darned entertaining story. A teacher who doesn't already enjoy the book as such probably shouldn't teach it. Be sure you genuinely like Huck Finn before sharing it with your students.

Because it is realistic, Huck Finn is, at times, quite painful. However, it is also quite funny. Here art mirrors life: The book's humor makes the journey bearable. Allow your students to revel in Twain's comedy. For instance, many students find Huck's dialect hilarious. How much of the book is read aloud is a teacher's prerogative, but the teacher, to allow students the opportunity to hear the speech patterns effectively performed must read the first portion of the book aloud. Be dramatic! Read with flair! Play Huck to the hilt! If you have an associate who can do it better, invite him into your classroom for a guest reading. You cannot over emphasize Huck's wretched grammar.

Some teachers will be tempted to whitewash its ugliness. Don't.

Poking fun at both characters
This leads to a second crucial point: No fun can be poked at Jim that cannot be poked at Huck. The book's detractors have missed, or ignored, this fact. "Jim's speech patterns are so awfully ignorant, almost cartoonish," they cry. Goodness. Are Huck's speech patterns any more impressive? Are Pap's? Twain's eye for human inconsistency is the soul of his beautiful ironies. In Huck Finn, characters who mock Jim's ignorance are themselves awash in ignorance. Student readers must be made to grasp this.

For example, early in the novel, Jim manifests his superstitious nature through his declared belief in witches. However, this does not take place until after Chapter 1, wherein Huck already has revealed himself to be equally irrational; he frets over the bad luck that killing a spider surely must bring him and over the omens inherent in the howling of dogs and the hootings of owls. These ironies are richly, though subtly, scattered throughout the novel. My African American students, especially, became adept at uncovering them. One such student took particular delight in pointing out Huck's ignorance of the trappings of European royalty in Chapter 14, the very chapter in which Huck declares the impossibility of teaching Jim anything at all. Discovering these dualities is your students' key to understanding the novel. Huck is much smarter than Jim ... or is he? Jim knows nothing about children and family life ... or does he? Huck Finn teaches us this: That which we're certain we know of others is, more often than not, as suspect as that which we're certain we know of ourselves.

Sometimes, though, Twain's humor conceals nothing profound; it's simply comedy for comedy's sake. This is another reason the book works. Teenagers' television and movie choices testify to their love of silliness. Many of my students laughed out loud at my reading of the ridiculous conversations of Tom Sawyer's gang (Chapter 2) and Huck's female impersonation (Chapter 11). Affect a falsetto in the latter performance -- even if you're already a woman -- and let your students enjoy the parody.

Real learning takes place
All is not fun and games, however, and Huck Finn's more serious episodes provide the final arena wherein real learning will take place. Huck is sometimes a clown; he is at all times a rebel. This complaint of many of Huck Finn's original readers strikes unwittingly at the heart of young Huck's journey to maturity. Huck's ultimate decision to assist Jim was a blatant rebellion against the mores and ethics of society. If allowed to admire Huck's rebel spirit, your students -- rebels themselves -- ultimately will share in his heroic victory.

I have found two of the book's more distressing episodes to be chief junctures that demand scrutiny as a class. The first is Pap's horrific "govment" speech in Chapter VI. Some teachers will be tempted to whitewash its ugliness. Don't. Pap's racist harangue more effectively reveals the evils Huck must overcome than do Twain's brief descriptions of slavery and Huck's constant use of the "n-word." After all, high school students likely have already studied Southern slavery in history class, and, unfortunately, they hear the "n-word" repeatedly in their music and movies. What they don't often hear are brutally honest revelations of the heart of hardcore racism. Sentiments like Pap's are not uncommon; the expression of them, in such straightforward fashion, often is. I read Pap's speech aloud to my students. I try to sound as indignant as Pap would have sounded if we could have heard him.

On one occasion, after I finished, a white girl said meekly, "Mr. Harris, those were the ugliest words I've ever heard." Her comment was followed by the voice of an otherwise very quiet African American boy in the back of the room. "Lots of people feel that way, though," he said. Everyone nodded silently. It was a tough moment, yet a poignant one. An honest one.

Chapter 15, in which Huck takes advantage of Jim through a practical joke, and then -- seeing that Jim's feelings are hurt -- forces himself to apologize, is also a place to stop and talk. Make sure your students notice that Huck's growth has begun; in spite of what he continues to call Jim, Huck obviously has begun to see Jim in a different light. From this point onward, Huck is aware that Jim has feelings, too.

We Were All Along For the Ride
Finally, it goes almost without saying that Chapter 31, as the book's moral climax, will provide the basis for your climactic class discussion. Huck discovers "you can't pray a lie" and that helping Jim is the right thing to do -- even if society's most pious and learned insist that aiding a runaway is perverted and wicked. However, if you've made it this far, this is a discussion you won't have to sweat. Everyone will be proud of Huck and eager to praise him. The rebel boy has come a long way by this point, and many of your students will have come a long way with him.

Every time I taught the novel, Huck's raft got awfully crowded. We were all of us along for the ride, through thick and thin, for better or for worse. And somewhere along that mighty river, we each, like Huck, did a lot of growing up.

Webb Harris Jr., taught American literature at Apopka High School in central Florida for five years.

Why Teaching Black Lives Matter Matters

All educators, by virtue of the fact that their students have either direct or mediated exposure to Black Lives Matter, should know the basic facts about the movement’s central beliefs and practices.

Straight Talk about the N-Word

Neal A. Lester recognized that the complexity of the n-word’s evolution demanded greater critical attention. So he created a class.

Add to an Existing Learning Plan
    Illustration of person holding and looking at laptop.

    New Virtual Workshops Are Available Now!

    Registrations are now open for our 90-minute virtual open enrollment workshops. Explore the schedule, and register today—the first workshop begins October 16th and space is limited!

    Sign Up!