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"Jeffrey W. Miller" <[log in to unmask]>
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Wed, 8 Dec 2004 10:55:04 -0600
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Hello fellow Twainiacs,

I received the following two emails today (see attached below) from a former
student who now teaches am lit in high school.  Apparently, _Huck Finn_ is a
controversial novel (who knew? <lol>).  I will probably point her to a few
articles in James Leonard's _Making Mark Twain Work in the Classroom_, but I
thought I might ask her main question (more accurately, the
student's/principal's question) to the members of this list serv: why is
_Huck Finn_ still relevant in 2004?  Why couldn't a "less combative" book
broach the same issues?  How can Twain's value in a classroom be articulated
for the student/principal/school board/concerned parent(s)?

Just curious about how y'all see this issue/problem.


Jeffrey W. Miller
University of Tennessee at Martin
Martin, TN 38238
(731) 881-7299
[log in to unmask]

-----Original Message-----
From: Andrea Viall [mailto:[log in to unmask]]
Sent: Wednesday, December 08, 2004 9:09 AM
To: [log in to unmask]
Subject: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Dr. Miller,

This is Andrea Viall. I was a student in your classa few years back. I also
saw you at the UTM production of Big River. Anyway, I am an English teacher
at Union City, 11th grade, American Lit. and have run into an issue I
thought maybe you could help me with.

We have just begun reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn this week. I
gave a brief biography of Twain and we discussed the controversy and
criticism over the novel. We even spent a whole day discussing the "n-word"
and why it holds such power and  why it makes a differnce when it ends in
"a" or "er". (Remember that I teach in an ~ 40/60 racially divided school.)
The conversations all went well, I thought. The class participated and they
were generally excited to begin the novel.

Then yesterday, I had a student in my Pre-AP class (black, average grades,
quite vocal about his beliefs) go to administration and ask to be exempt
from the assignment, and suggested the novel be BANNED from Union City High
School because it is racist. I expected to face this one day, and gave him
an alternative assignment, and moved on. The trouble is that I have been
asked "Why this book is still relavent in 2004. Why does it have such a
stronghold on American Literature? Isn't there another book from this time
period that would discuss these issues in a less combative way? Can't we
just 'skip' the n-word when we read it aloud?"

All of these questions make me question why this book is such a fixture in
the cannon. I hate to say we read it because it is a novel you "should" be
familiar with before you graduate. I try to say we read it because of the
controversy -- to see what the fuss is about. I know it is a coming of age
story and deals with slavery, dialect, and this area of the country. But
ultimately, I guess I am asking you if you have a good answer as to why it
is important, and worth the controversy, to read this novel. What do you do
to address the controversy when you teach it? Do you think you can skip the
"n-word" and still do this novel justice?

I know this is awfully random, but I am going to the only authority I know
on the matter. If you have a moment, could you give me your thoughts. I
would really appreciate your insight.

Thank you!

[A follow-up email said this:]

Thank you for responding so quickly. Sure, you can post it to the list

Last year the students loved the novel, black and white, and thought the
word was redundant but not offensive. (Bright group!) This year, the
students are mixed over the whole idea. Most accept that this was
acceptable at the time, but still think we should avoid reading it now, for
fear of making someone angry. One even asked that she not have to read it
aloud for fear of confrontation about saying the dreaded word. I must
admit, I am uncomfortable with the word myself in general conversation, but
I see such a clear line between what I say and what a character in a book
says. How can we look at the progression of thought in our nation without
looking at the bad as well as the good? I would think my minority students
would want to read a book about a boy who discovers the humanity of a slave
that he always looked on as property previously. This year some of them,
this one inparticular, are reacting like it is another instance of

Thankfully, I have an excellent rapport with my students, and at no time do
they question my belief that ALL my students are valuable to me and to
society. That being said, I can tell that some of them question whether I
am naive to this issue. It is almost as if I can hear them saying, "Ms.
Viall is cool. She just doesn't realize it is racist to read this. She
don't mean nothin' by it." But my point is, it is not a racist novel, even
if the n-word IS in it 382 times.

Though this has all quieted down by today, and I know my administration
supports me even though they question if it could be done without so much
controversy, I still would like to arm myself with the knowledge about
"why" Huck Finn.

I anxiously await your response. Thank you so much for taking your time to
have this conversation.