Twain's 'Huckleberry Finn' worth saving

Bruce Ramsey / The Seattle Times /

Published Apr 14, 2013 at 05:00AM

For decades, Mark Twain's “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was celebrated in popular culture as a boys' book and lauded as the cornerstone of American literature. Then it was attacked for repeating a racial epithet; and if it were only a boys' book, it would have been finished. But it is also an anti-slavery book.

It isn't only that, but if that saves it, good.

The book has a famous scene in which Huck, a white boy, apologizes to Jim, a slave. None of the sugarcoated movies I've seen communicates how momentous this is. At Town Hall Seattle, I saw it acted out by Christopher Morson and Geoffrey Simmons of Seattle's Book-It Repertory Theatre. They get the meaning of it. They include it in Book-It's production, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Uncensored.”

Book-It's mission is to promote literature by dramatizing books, word for word. Jane Jones, founder, got the idea for doing “Huckleberry Finn” after reading of a project to replace the N-word in the book with “slave.” She thought it historically dishonest; it was “taking the white man off the hook.” Her two-and-a-half hour production, she says, won't do that.

Good. Twain used the taboo word 219 times, and not as an attack word. It was an everyday word in his day, and he used it that way.

The story of Huck setting out in the company of a runaway slave is not a story that celebrates racial injustice. Huck and Jim are comrades. They have a string of encounters with whites, most of which turn out badly. Jim is sometimes portrayed as silly — Twain “minstrelized him,” says Jones — but he is a good man. Huck's sense of right and wrong is hit or miss.

The book has been banned in some public schools, but Seattle's schools allow it. At Franklin High School, David Ehrich teaches it to his 11th-grade humanities class. He says, “You can't teach this in a 'gotcha' environment,” but Ehrich is all right. He doesn't use the epithet in class, though he allows his students to use it.

“There are problems with this book,” Ehrich says. After Huck's time with Jim on the river, he would not have accepted Tom Sawyer's juvenile scheme for Jim's liberation. One of Ehrich's assignments is for students to write a letter to Twain arguing for a better ending of the story.

To Ehrich, the high point is the story's opening. Here Twain introduces his themes of civilization versus freedom, of living off the river, of common sense versus the crabbed teachings of conventional adults.

“How many other books bring up all this interesting stuff?” Ehrich says.

I read “Huckleberry Finn” 50 years ago, and not at 16, either, but at about 11. For a boy growing up enmeshed in rules, Huck was a wonder. He was free. He smoked. He slept outside. He could come and go as he pleased. He could start life at 13, living off the river and conning adults with fabulous lies.

I wasn't going to do all that, but I liked imagining it.

Ehrich, who grew up in Indiana, recalls setting out with a buddy on a raft at age 12 and floating for several days, inspired by Huckleberry Finn.

Ehrich can give literary reasons why he teaches the book — the first American novel in dialect, the first from the viewpoint of a child, one of the first to give voice to a slave. He also teaches it because it moved him.

It's a book to be saved.