‘Huck Finn’ still pushes buttons, professor says

Tuesday, September 26, 2000

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The true value of a book lies in its ability to take its reader outside his or her comfort zone, an English professor and author said today.

“If it isn’t a dangerous book, there really is no reason for anybody to read it or teach it,” said Michael Kreyling, director of graduate studies in the English Department at Vanderbilt University.

Kreyling joined several panelists and moderator John Seigenthaler for the discussion “The Censorship of Huck Finn,” presented by the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt and the Tennessee Performing Arts Center.

Censored repeatedly since its publication in 1885, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was No. 5 on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 most challenged books of the 1990s. Criticized initially for its rowdiness and later for what some considered a sympathetic view toward slaves, Huck Finn has been challenged in recent years for its use of the word “nigger” and its racial content.

“Before the ’50s evidently nobody ever read it as a book about race,” said panelist David Barber, an English professor at the University of Idaho. “It was a book about kids growing up, but not race. It wasn’t until the last half century that we’ve seen it that way, and now everybody sees it that way.”

Noting this, panelist Jocelyn Irby, a literature professor at Tennessee State University in Nashville, questioned whether the book should be taught in today’s racial climate.

“When we teach Huck Finn and we identify it as a classic, we sort of participate in institutionalized racism,” Irby said. “We perpetuate in an institutional manner certain stereotypes (and) myths, particularly myths concerning the African-American male.”

Panelist Laura C. Jarmon, an English professor at the University of Tennessee at Martin, says problems arise when the book is taught on the elementary and high school levels because many teachers do not fully understand the book themselves.

“I have had students at the senior level in college who have a hard time understanding the concept of irony,” she said. “Then two years later they graduate and go into the public schools … and they’re going to teach this book? They can’t begin to refer in any accurate fashion to what it feels like in an integrated situation for that little black child to hear the word ‘nigger’ repeated.”

Jarmon says she believes the book is too complex to teach on any level but the graduate level. “The graduate student is the only one who has an investment in doing the degree of research that’s necessary in order to dig around in that book and see it from its various angles,” she said.

But Kreyling said removing the book from high school classrooms would only reinforce the stigma attached to the word “nigger.” “It would seem to me to put it on the shelf and restrict it to graduate students would remystify its language, its words, sort of remystify the ‘n’ word,” he said. “It just seems to me the more we can use it, the more we can talk to each other about what it means, the less mystical power the word has.”

Kreyling says the fact that the book provokes such discussion more than 100 years after it was published proves why it is considered a classic.

“It tells us more about what American culture is and the rails on which it moves and the language — both overt and covert — that it uses to arrange reality than other books of its time,” he said. “And that’s why we still teach it. It still works. It still pushes the right buttons. That’s why we still have to keep teaching it.”

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