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Intro

In A Nutshell

What do you get when you cross America's greatest humor writer with a runaway slave, a homeless street kid, and a lot of really offensive language?

You get a book that's been banned in classrooms and libraries around the country since just about the moment it was published in the U.S. in 1885—and a book that's been on required high school reading lists for almost as long.

Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was a follow-up to Tom Sawyer, and it dumps us right back in the Southern antebellum (that's "pre-war") world of Tom and his wacky adventures.

Only this time, the adventures aren't so much "wacky" as life- and liberty-threatening. Huckleberry Finn is a poor kid whose dad is an abusive drunk. Huck runs away, and immediately encounters another runaway. But this runaway isn't just escaping a mean dad; he's escaping an entire system of racially based oppression.

He's escaping slavery.

This encounter throws Huckleberry into an ethical quandary (that's a fancy way of saying "dilemma"). He knows that, legally, he should turn in the runaway slave Jim. Problem is, he's also starting to see Jim as a real person rather than, well, someone's property. (Duh, Huckleberry.)

When Twain published Huckleberry Finn first in 1884 in Canada and the U.K. and then in the U.S. in 1885, the book was immediately banned—but not for its casual racism and use of the n-word. Nope. It was banned because it was "vulgar," thanks to its depiction of low-class criminals and things like Huck actually scratching himself.

Fifty years later, Huckleberry Finn was part of American literary tradition. Both T. S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway thought it was one of the most important books ever written in the U.S.—but it was still being banned, expurgated, and rewritten to suit a (somewhat) less racist time.

Shmoop loves banned books, and not just because we're rebels. We love banned books because a banned book means that someone's buttons are being pressed. And if someone's buttons are being pressed, we know that the book is raising important issues. And boy, does Huckleberry Finn raise some important issues.

Important issues like, "Is it right to own other people?" (Hint: no.)

Important issues like, "Is it right to obey laws, if the laws are wrong?" (Hm, this one's a little trickier.)

Important issues like, "Are individuals more important than society?" (We don't even want to touch this question.)

Think about it this way: Huckleberry Finn suggests that the accepted moral values of society are wrong. Public schools (and most private schools) are usually pretty committed to sticking to accepted moral values. Let's be clear: in most cases, those accepted moral values—don't cheat; be respectful; show up to places on time—are hard to argue with. But it's easy to see that schools might be a little wary about having their students read a book that suggests individual conscience should be a more important guide than the rules and laws that everyone follows.

 

Why Should I Care?

Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can never hurt us—or can they?

Hip-hop music is full of the n-word. In Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino uses it practically every sentence. (Or maybe literally every sentence: we didn't count.) And Huck has no problem referring to his supposed friend with the same offensive word.

Hip-hop artists would say that they're reclaiming the word and using it to define a community; Tarantino has said that he's trying to show the racism of slavery accurately. And Twain was just trying to represent the dialect of the time, writing one of the first American novels to use real people's language rather than literary language.

But does that mean we need to read it now? Can we read the book in classrooms as just a piece of history, or does the n-word still have the racist power of the past? Was it right for a 2011 edition of Huckleberry Finn to replace all the instances of the n-word with "slave," or is that an act of censorship that changes an important work of literature?

We're not sure. But we are sure that words matter—and that this is a book to care about.

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