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Language in Huck Finn. Controversy and Debate. First banning of the book. In 1885, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was banned from some libraries because of “coarse language.”

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language in huck finn

Language in Huck Finn

Controversy and Debate

first banning of the book
First banning of the book
  • In 1885, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was banned from some libraries because of “coarse language.”
    • One of the Library Committee, while not prepared to hazard the opinion that the book is "absolutely immoral in its tone," does not hesitate to declare that to him "it seems to contain but very little humor." Another committeeman perused the volume with great care and discovered that it was "couched in the language of a rough, ignorant dialect" and that "all through its pages there is a systematic use of bad grammar and an employment of inelegant expressions." The third member voted the book "flippant" and "trash of the veriest sort." They all united in the verdict that "it deals with a series of experiences that are certainly not elevating," and voted that it could not be tolerated in the public library.

-New York Herald, March 18, 1885

how has the definition of coarse language changed
How has the definition of “coarse” language changed?
  • At your tables, discuss the change in the meaning of “coarse” language. Is Huck’s speech going to influence the speech of readers?
  • Speaking of speech, what is the value in using dialects in the book? Why not just have everyone speak “properly”?
some history of the controversy
Some history of the controversy
  • 1884 - The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is published.
  • 1885 - The Concord Public Library bans Huck Finn on account of the title character's bad example.
  • 1885 - Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women remarked, “If Mr. Clemens cannot think of something better to tell our pure-minded lads and lasses he had best stop writing for them.”
  • 1902 - The Brooklyn Public Library banned Huckleberry Finn because of Huck's inappropriate behavior.
  • 1907 - Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn were banned from libraries on a regular basis for their bad examples.
  • 1935 - Ernest Hemmingway said, “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.”
  • 1955 - CBS produces a made for TV film adaptation of Huck Finn. The film doesn't even mention slavery. Jim is not black.
  • 1957 - The NAACP calls Huck Finn racially offensive. The New York City Board of Education takes it off its approved novels list.
  • 1976 - Huck Finn is removed from a required reading list in Illinois because of the "n" word.
  • 1978 - Ironically, the People's Republic of China lifts its ban on Mark Twain.
  • 1982 - Mark Twain Intermediate School administrator calls Huck Finn the “most grotesque example of racism I’ve ever seen in my life”
  • 1998 - Parents in Tempe, Arizona sue the school district over Huck Finn's presence on a required reading list. The parents lost.
  • 2011 – A version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is released, replacing the “n” word with “slave”
question for discussion
Question for discussion
  • Agree/disagree: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an important novel and students in America should read it.
new censored version
New “censored” version
jill nelson author
Jill Nelson, author
  • There are vast differences between calling a character “nigger” and calling them “slave.” They are not interchangeable. Writers choose their words thoughtfully. Our words create, color, layer and texture and contextualize the stories we tell. The notion that one can change one of those carefully chosen words -- much less 219 of them -- to suit their perception of contemporary mores and eliminate the possibility of hurt sensibilities is an abdication of a teacher’s responsibility to illuminate and guide students through an unfamiliar and perhaps difficult text. What’s next? Substituting orange for red in a painter’s work because some observers find red too aggressive?
paul butler law professor
Paul Butler, law professor
  • If some teachers have the audacity to believe that Mark Twain’s work is still meaningful, even absent the words “nigger” and “injun,” more power to them. If other teachers think keeping those epithets in is worth the pain they will cause students of color, I understand that too. This isn’t about censorship, it’s about choice. Either choice will have unfortunate consequences.
shelley fischer fishkin professor
Shelley Fischer Fishkin, professor

Twain once wrote that “The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter -- it is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” He chose his words with care. The “new edition" of Huck Finn is not new (John Wallace published an edition that substituted “slave” for the n-word over 25 years ago); and it is not Huck Finn.

It is the persistence of racism in America that makes the n-word in Huck Finn a problem in the classroom. We need to give teachers the tools they need to teach Twain’s book in the context of the history of racism in this country that is its central concern.

timothy jay author
Timothy Jay, author
  • Cleaning up literature is never a solution. We should inform children and prepare them to make their own decisions about information. Uncomfortable topics like sexuality, racism, harassment and prejudice need to be confronted rather than tucked away.

Commentary from the New York Times:

what do you think
What do you think?
  • What is the impact of changing the “n”-word in Huck Finn?
    • What is lost or gained?