The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is, in my estimation, one of those books that everyone should be required to read. In the immortal words of no less a person than Ernest Hemingway, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn… American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” Rex Stout proclaimed in his 1969 Nero Wolfe novel Death of a Dude that the sentence Huck utters to himself after he decides to tear up the letter to Miss Watson is the “single greatest sentence in American literature”:
It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
“All right, then, I’ll go to hell” — and tore it up.
Think about how much Huck was conveying in that simple sentence. Every time I read that passage, I get chills.
When I teach this novel, I have found it important to provide students with a map of some sort that they keep in their notebook for reference. Students have difficulty with the concept of traveling south in order to get to the North — specifically, to Cairo, Illinois. The Center for Learning has a unit plan that has a great map in it.
I begin a study of this novel by focusing directly on the controversy surrounding it. In order to do this, I pass out a list of the ALA’s most frequently challenged books list. I found a good one in Teaching Tolerance magazine about two years ago. These lists are widely available, however. I photocopy the list for each student, pass it out, and ask students to cross out all the titles they’ve read. What they often find is that 1) they’ve read a lot of challenged books, 2) they don’t understand why the books were challenged. This realization opens the door for a good discussion about why someone might challenge Huck Finn.
The word “nigger” appears in the book 212 times. However, in the words of Russell Baker,
“The people whom Huck and Jim encounter on the Mississippi are drunkards, murderers, bullies, swindlers, lynches, thieves, liars, frauds, child abusers, numbskulls, hypocrites, windbags and traders in human flesh. All are white. The one man of honor in this phantasmagoria is ‘Nigger Jim,’ as Twain called him to emphasize the irony of a society in which the only true gentleman was held beneath contempt.”
Eventually, your students will come to this realization, but I have found tackling the issue head-on to be an excellent way to begin the novel.
After we have our discussion, I begin the novel by reading aloud. I have a bit of a Southern twang, and I can certainly amp it up when reading Southern literature. The dialect can be difficult for students, so I have found hearing it helps them to get a feel for it.
I have not discontinued my series of posts on teaching Romeo and Juliet. I will most likely post more ideas for R&J toward the end of this week or next week. In addition, I will post further tips and ideas for teaching Huck Finn.