Teaching Huckleberry Finn: Part One

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.

[tags]education, Huckleberry Finn, challenged books[/tags]

11 thoughts on “Teaching Huckleberry Finn: Part One”

  1. Dana, ddd (darling dyslexic daughter) has big trouble comprehending written dialect, so she listened to it as a recorded book. I can't find the copy now, so I cannot tell you which recorded edition, but it was terrific. (darts off to research) — probably Grover Gardner's reading.


    We listened to it on a long drive — OUTSTANDING way to experience this wonderful novel.

    I'd recommend this recorded version for all–it really makes the story come alive.

  2. Many of my students use books on tape, but they also tell me I should read for books on tape. Of course, they could be blowing smoke up the proverbial orifice.

  3. Dana-

    I have taught this book twice now. This year I had a much more successful go of it than last year. One of the reasons, I think, is that I held off talking about the censorship and the "N" word until we came across it in the writing. Last year I did the CFL unit plans and for some reason my kids didn't want to leave the "N" word alone. Snickers and taunts were continuously thrown about the room. But, this year, they were intrigued by the reading and I had prepped them by studying Twain as a person and a short synopsis of Tom Sawyer. When the first use of the "N" word happened-there was silent shock. It may have been because a teacher said the word. It may have been they couldn't believe a respected author used the word. It could have been any reason, but at that point the kids were hooked and their minds were open wide.

    I LOVE teaching this book!

  4. Here's a webquest I created. Imagine being white trying to teach this novel to an all African-American class that uses the "n" word like they use "please" and "thank you," and then having them say they don't want to read the book because of the "n" word. My webquest didn't help any but maybe you can use it.


  5. I agree with what a lot of people said above. I'm not a teacher, but even I can tell you that if we ban Huck finn, we miss the point. This book is supposed to help people learn from the past, so we can do a better job in the future. If so many people ban this booksimply because of the fast that it offends people, then we might as well ban all things that insult America in any way. People may not like to remember, but if we don't, everyone is going to miss out on a lot of useful information.

  6. Hello Dana,

    I enjoyed reading the teaching tips listed your blog post.

    I am looking for educators, like you, who teach "Huckleberry Finn" and other multicultural literature to complete a survey for my master's research paper.

    This survey seeks to explore secondary educators' perceptions of whether or not multicultural literature, particularly "Huckleberry Finn," affects students' understanding of racial tolerance and acceptance.

    If you would like to participate, go to:


    Thank you very much!

    p.s. If any other language arts educators are reading my comment, please feel free to also take the survey. It would be greatly appreciated!

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