Banned Books Week: Mark Twain

In my last blog, I discussed literary censorship, in recognition of Banned Books Week (BBW). I hope you enjoyed reading it as much I had writing it. As I do continuous research for this week-long blog series, I am learning a lot about many of the greatest authors of all time, and re-reading many classics.

As I mentioned last time, this year’s BBW focuses on the Young Adult (YA) genre. So this time around, I would like to talk about a certain Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known by his pen name, Mark Twain.

Mark Twain

Mark Twain

Despite the fact that Huckleberry Finn is on the required reading list in many American high schools, it remains one of the Top 5 most banned books of all time, due to the fact that Twain uses the *N-word a purported 219 times (I am not going to count, but that sounds accurate). Many consider the novel to be racist and offensive… so much so, that there are “sanitized” versions of this classic book in circulation that replace the N-word with “slave.” (*I am censoring myself here, because while I have the freedom to use that word, I find it vulgar and ugly.)

Whether or not you have read any of Twain’s books from cover to cover, I think almost everyone has heard of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was published in 1876; The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, was supposed to be a sequel to that book. However, the Huck character took on a life of his own. Although Tom Sawyer appears in the second book, the novel is distinctively Huck’s story. It differs from its predecessor in that it’s told in the first person, whereas Tom Sawyer was written in the third person, from an omniscient point of view. Being that Huck is a minimally literate kid from rural Missouri, good grammar is non-existent. An example of Huck’s narrative:

Pap he hadn’t been seen for more than a year, and that was comfortable for me; I didn’t want to see him no more.  He used to always whale me when he was sober and could get his hands on me; though I used to take to the woods most of the time when he was around.  Well, about this time he was found in the river drownded, about twelve mile above town, so people said.  They judged it was him, anyway; said this drownded man was just his size, and was ragged, and had uncommon long hair, which was all like pap; but they couldn’t make nothing out of the face, because it had been in the water so long it warn’t much like a face at all.  

Jim, a runaway slave, is the other important character in this story. His dialogue is written phonetically, and you almost have to “play” it in your head (or read it aloud) to understand it. A sample:

“But I didn’ have no luck.  When we ‘uz mos’ down to de head er de islan’ a man begin to come aft wid de lantern, I see it warn’t no use fer to wait, so I slid overboard en struck out fer de islan’.  Well, I had a notion I could lan’ mos’ anywhers, but I couldn’t—bank too bluff.  I ‘uz mos’ to de foot er de islan’ b’fo’ I found’ a good place.  I went into de woods en jedged I wouldn’ fool wid raffs no mo’, long as dey move de lantern roun’ so.  I had my pipe en a plug er dog-leg, en some matches in my cap, en dey warn’t wet, so I ‘uz all right.”

The people who want to censor, ban, or change the language of this book are overlooking a couple of facts…

  1. While The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was first published in the U.S. in 1885 (1884 in the UK), the story, according to Twain, was actually set 40 to 50 years prior, before the Civil War. Slavery was a sad, harsh, but very real fact of life. The N-word was such a common, acceptable term in those days, a boy Huck’s age (about 13) wouldn’t know it was a racial slur.
  2. Twain wrote the book with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. It was meant to be a satire, pointing out the hypocrisy of so-called “civilized” society.

Huck better

In the end (sorry to spoil it if you have not read it yet), Huck has learned to question the rules of society. He goes by his gut feeling instead of by any law. Jim has grown to be his friend, and all the reward money in the word couldn’t make him turn Jim into the bounty hunters that are chasing him. Huck helps Jim escape to freedom.

So, was Mark Twain a racist? It’s doubtful. His own father kept 20 slaves when Twain was a young boy. He later recalled in his autobiography: “I vividly remember seeing a dozen black men and women chained to one another, once, and lying in a group on the pavement, awaiting shipment to the Southern slave market. Those were the saddest faces I have ever seen.”

Mark Twain didn’t spend seven years of his life writing Huck’s story, only for it to be censored. You can read the whole thing for free– with illustrations, too– right here.


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