I have always been fascinated by the many ways that literature influences our lives, but, as a literary scholar, I also know that influence is a very hard thing to prove. That’s why I find censorship to be interesting. When people censor a book, they do so because they assume that it can have an impact, albeit a negative one. Censorship thus works as a kind of indirect compliment. Generally, authors would rather be censored than ignored.
Ben Click, my friend, colleague, and department chair, recently talked about Huckleberry Finn’s censorship history in a public lecture sponsored by our college library during Banned Book Week. That history, Ben reveals, has turned 180 degrees. When it first appeared, the novel was attacked by moralists and southern racists. Now it is sometimes accused of being racist itself. (I recently defended Twain against charges of racism here). That being said, Ben points out that some of our greatest African American writers have defended it, including Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, and, more recently, Toni Morrison. Here is Ben’s talk.
By Ben Click, Professor of English, St. Mary’s College of Maryland
I will start by explaining some terms that relate to the purpose and spirit of this evening’s talk. There’s a difference between the “banning,” “challenging,” and “censuring” of anything: a movie, a speech, a book. Books may be challenged for inclusion in a library or in a school curriculum, and often challenges yield productive discussions. But banning a book never did anyone much good, and censuring one is just playing with toys that ain’t yours.
Welcome to “Hushing Huck: The Banning of Huckleberry Finn.” Of course, I am now leaning more favorably to the title that this year’s Twain Fellow, English major Alyssa Miller, suggested: “Shut the Huck Up: The Banning of Huckleberry Finn.” In a way, the two titles offer us an interesting rubric for how the book has been received and thus banned. “Hushing” reflects the early genteel considerations for why the book needed to be banned. In short, the genteel critique was that the book promoted bad morals and course behavior for young people. “Shut the Huck Up” seems more like the modern reason for banning the book, with the titular joke residing in the one word: “Huck” for “F***” There’s one particular word that appears 200 times in the novel that fuels the ire of parents, preachers, and critics who claim the book is racist—it even riles the ire of those who haven’t read it! But more about that in a bit.
Few books have felt the highs and lows of critical response like those of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. When a library bans a book, it has labels explaining why: “too political” “too much sex” “irreligious,” or the category that Huck falls under, “socially offensive.“ Thus, it seems a great irony that a Mark Twain quote graces the opening page of all 344 volumes of the Dictionary of Literary Biography: “…almost the most prodigious asset of a country, and perhaps its most precious possession is its narrative literary product – when that product is fine and noble and enduring.”
The irony is that, within the literary canon, Twain’s novel is universally considered just that—“fine and noble, and enduring”—and yet it is also one of the most banned books of all time. Currently, it ranks #14 in the Top 100 Banned or Challenged Books of the last decade. In the decade preceding that it ranked #5. Still, the novel continues to be read by millions everywhere.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been translated into over 53 languages. It has never gone out of print since it was first published in 1885, and it has sold over 20 million copies. In the U.S. alone, there are well over 100 different editions of the book, and a staggering 700 plus in foreign editions. It is celebrating its 125th year anniversary in the same year that we commemorate the 100th anniversary of Samuel Langhorne Clemens’ (Mark Twain’s) passing.
In 1935, Ernest Hemingway claimed that “all American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” It’s been called our country’s great epic, as Homer’s was Greece’s. British playwright George Bernard Shaw said he learned from Huck Finn that the funniest joke in the world was just telling the truth. It was the book Mark Twain himself considered his best, and it is the book that our college chose for summer reading for our first-year students. Copies of the book have shown up in the most amazing places: Bismarck’s writing desk, the private parlor of the President of Chile, in the Czarina’s boudoir. It has been converted to just about every form you can imagine: film several times, book adaptations, musical scores, comics, and a hit Broadway production. It is an amazing literary achievement.
It has also been banned ever since it was first published.
Trouble from the Start
In 1876 Twain published The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and it was a huge success. He wanted to follow up with a sequel, but it took him over eight years to write and publish Huck Finn. During that time he published three other classics: The Prince and the Pauper, A Tramp Abroad, and Life on the Mississippi. Three main issues plagued the book’s pre and early release: an obscene engraving, an unfortunate lawsuit, and the Concord Public Library ban.
An Obscene Engraving
One of the 174 woodcut illustrations had been altered and included in the subscription salesmen’s prospectuses. The New York World published this embarrassment and the story was circulated widely. Here’s the original, altered woodcut, and the corrected version next to it:
Here’s how the paper described it: “A mere stroke of the awl would suffice to give the cut an indecent character never intended by the author or engraver . . . a characteristic which would be repudiated not only by the author, but by all respectable people of the country into whose hands this volume should fall.”
The Estes and Lauriat lawsuit
Even before the book was distributed to subscription book agents, the Boston bookseller, Estes and Lauriat, published a catalog that listed the book’s price below that of the subscription rate that Twain’s publisher would ask. Twain sued the bookseller, and the story was widely published. In short, although in the right, the lawsuit made Twain look greedy.
The Concord Public Library ban
In mid-March, the Concord Public Library Committee decided unanimously to ban the book, calling it “flippant, irreverent, and trashy.” One member of the committee said, “It deals with a series of adventures of a very low grade of morality; it is couched in the language of a rough, ignorant dialect. . . . The whole book is of a class that is more profitable for the slums than it is for respectable people, and it is trash of the veriest sort.”
Even Little Women author Louisa May Alcott lashed out publicly at Twain, saying, “If Mr. Clemens cannot think of something better to tell our pure-minded lads and lasses he had best stop writing for them.” Twain was initially unruffled by the controversy, writing to his publisher: “They have expelled Huck from their library as ‘trash & only suitable for the slums.’ That will sell 25,000 copies for us, sure.”
The story got lots of press, and some papers, like the San Francisco Chronicle, defended the book. Twain wrote to his sister Pamela, who was living in California at the time (she probably sent him the Chronicle article), “The Chronicle understands the book—those idiots in Concord are not a court of last resort, & I am not disturbed by their moral gymnastics.”
Eventually, however, he became disturbed by the charge of immorality, and in his lecture tour of 1885-86 he laid out the novel’s central conflict: “in a crucial moral emergency a sound heart is a safer guide than an ill-trained conscience.” However, within six years of its publication, the book left its detractors behind. Critics such as Brander Matthews called it a “great book.” Critic Andrew Lang called it “nothing less than a masterpiece.” The British journal Punch referred to it as a “Homeric book—as no other English book is.”
The Banning Continues: From questionable morals to racist trash
Despite its critical recognition, the novel was still challenged and banned locally by library boards and religious organizations because of its irreverence, its inappropriateness for children, and its questionable morality. This appeared to be the reason that, in 1902, the Denver Public Library “excluded” the book from its approved “list of books for boys.”
But Twain saw things differently. The reason appeared political rather than moral, stemming from Twain’s scathing attack on General Frederick Funston, who was made a war hero by Teddy Roosevelt for his deeds in the Philippine-American war—which Twain vocally opposed. Twain wrote to the Denver Post,
There’s nobody for me to attack in this matter even with soft and gentle ridicule—and I shouldn’t think of using a grown-up weapon in this kind of nursery. Above all, I couldn’t venture to attack the clergy men whom you mention, for I have their habits and live in the same glass house which they are occupying. I am always reading immoral books on the sly, and then selfishly trying to prevent other people from having the same wicked good time.
Almost simultaneously, the Omaha Public Library, in the same month, hushed Huck—again, while the stated reason was its pernicious influence on young people, the real reason most likely was political. Twain ultimately shot back about Huck being censored: “Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it.” All the while he remained critical of the U.S. pursuing its imperialistic impulses. And the book kept getting banned.
And just who are these people condemning Huck? Our wonderfully wise staff of librarians would like me to bury this next comment, but even they support the free revelation of unvarnished TRUTH. Many times it was the librarians themselves banning the book. This was the case in 1905 when the head librarian of the Brooklyn Public Libraries put not only Huck Finn but also Tom Sawyer on the “restricted list.” The librarian claimed that “Huck was a deceitful boy; that he not only itched but scratched”; and that he said “sweat” when he should have said “perspiration.”
Only one brave librarian voiced an objection—Asa Dickinson, a quiet rebel of obvious intelligence. He wrote to Twain expressing his concern. Twain wrote at least two letters back to Dickinson, both full of typical Twain humor:
The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean; I know this by my own experience, and to this day I cherish an unappeasable bitterness again the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15. None can do that and ever draw a clean, sweet breath again this side of the grave.
Twain then sarcastically makes the following request: “If there is an unexpurgated Bible in the Children’s Department, won’t you please help that young woman remove Huck and Tom from that questionable companionship.” He asked Dickinson not to allow the press to ever know what his letters said. Dickinson never did.
It was not until after in death in 1910 that Twain’s stature as an author grew. In his day, he would not be recognized as a great author but merely America’s greatest humorist. Of course, I consider that a tremendous compliment. I agree with W. D. Howells’ assessment in 1900:
When we look back over our literature, and see what savage and stupid and pitiless things have passed for humor, and then open his page, we seem not only to have invented the only true humorist, but to have invented humor itself. We do not know by what mystery his talent sprang from our soil and flowered in our air, but we know that no such talent has been known to any other; and if we set any bounds to our joy in him, it must be from that innate American modesty, not always perceptible to the alien eye, which forbids us to keep throwing bouquests at ourselves.
Twain himself felt the sting of not being recognized for his great literary achievements. When he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Oxford in 1907, he was troubled that “persons of small and temporary consequence—persons of local and evanescent notoriety, person who drift into obscurity and are forgotten inside of ten years—and never a degree offered me! Of all those thousands, not fifty are known outside of America, and not a hundred are still famous in it.”
And so, while Huck had his share of troubles during its pre-publication period and then with contemporary reception, he was given a bit of a reprieve from 1910 (when his creator died) to 1957 (the early stages of the Civil Rights Movement). During that time, it was still banned, but with Twain no longer there to make his case and ridicule the attackers, the praise overshadowed the banning. Plus, America’s preoccupation with a Great Depression and two World Wars kept its mind on seemingly larger issues. This changed in the 1950s with the emergence of the Civil Rights movement.
On Language and Race
In 1957, the New York City Board of Education removed the book from approved textbook lists in elementary and junior high schools, citing it to be “racially offensive.” (See the above cartoon.) While the local NAACP denied any hand in this removal, it did respond to the Herald Tribune, saying that Twain’s work was chockfull of “racial slurs” and “belittling racial designations.”
Interestingly, they did not object to the use of the word “nigger” in the text, but rather that the textbook version used (a 1951 Scott, Foresman edition) didn’t capitalize the word “Negro.” This 1951 “rewritten” and censored version had to follow a teacher- approved list of over 2000 words or phrases. “Idiot” became “fool” “Jews harp” became “mouth organ” and Huck’s entire voice is taken away from him. Instead of the first line being,
You don’t know about me without you have read ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.
You don’t know about me unless you have read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
Thus, we begin see the move to edit this great novel to make it acceptable.
As the book neared its centenary about 25 years later, it was banned in Davenport, Iowa, Houston, Texas, and Bucks County, Pennsylvania. It was also challenged by parents in Waukegen and Springfield, Illinois. But the case to censor Huck that received the greatest national attention occurred right up the road in Fairfax County, Virginia. In 1982, as the book moved toward its centenary, the principal at (and here’s an irony that Twain would love) the Mark Twain Intermediate School, removed the book from the required reading list on the advice of its Human Rights Committee.
An administrative aide for the school, John H. Wallace, told the Washington Post that “the book is poison. It is an Anti-American; it works against the melting pot theory of our country, it works against the idea that all men are created equal; it works against the 14th amendment to the Constitution and against the preamble that guarantees all men life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Three years later he told Ted Koppel on Nightline that the novel “is the most grotesque example of racist trash ever written” and in essence should be dropped from school reading lists. In her article, “NAACP on Huck Finn: Teach Teachers to Be Sensitive; Don’t Censor . . . ,” NAACP Education Director Beverly P. Cole, responded to Wallace’s charge: “You don’t ban Mark Twain—you explain Mark Twain.” Quite a different response from the NAACP of 25 years before that helped hush Huck in the NY Public Schools!
In his article “The Case Against Huck Finn,” Wallace claims that “Huckleberry Finn is racist, whether its author intended it to be or not.” Of course, Twain was no longer physically alive to respond, but his words do just as well. As he wrote in an 1887 letter, “Don’t explain your author, read him right and he explains himself.”
Ironically, in the last paragraph of his article Wallace writes,
If an educator feels he or she must use Huckleberry Finn in the classroom, I would suggest my revised version, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Adapted, by John H. Wallace. The story is the same, but the words “nigger” and “hell” are eradicated. It no longer depicts blacks as inhuman, dishonest, or unintelligent, and it contains a glossary of Twainisms. Most adolescents will enjoy laughing at Jim and Huck in this adaptation.
The preface of Wallace’s version reads, “Huck and his friend Tom Sawyer have lots of fun playing tricks on Jim and several other characters in the novel.”
This period of censorship in the 1980s can be seen in other ways also. In 1982, the publisher of an edition of Twain’s works thought it necessary to add the following note to the beginning of the book:
A note to the reader: There are racial references and language in this story that may be offensive to the modern reader. He should be aware, however, that these do not reflect the attitude of the publisher of this edition. Moreover, Mark Twain’s original intention was one of irony, where the insults applied to Jim, the runaway slave, were meant to emphasize Jim’s nobility and integrity, in contrast to those who cast the slurs. It is in this light that the story should be read.
It should be noted that not all African American readers have felt the book needed such a defense. Note the following voices:
Langston Hughes: “Mark Twain, in his presentation of Negroes as human beings, stands head and shoulders about the other Southern writers of his time.”
Ralph Ellison: “Mark Twain celebrated [the spoken idiom of Negro Americans] in the prose of Huckleberry Finn; without the presence of blacks, the book could not have been written. No Huck and Jim, no American novel as we know it.”
Toni Morrison praised Twain’s use of language and the river as structural device, but identified its silent passages as also part of its genius: “when scenes and incidents swell the heart unbearably and precisely because they are unarticulated, and force an act of imagination almost against the will . . . It is classic literature.”
This is just part of the long history of censoring, challenging and banning of Huck. The novel is still being challenged. Just three years ago I was at the Twain home in Hartford, his adult home where he wrote parts of Huck Finn. A local school was considering excluding it.
As we conclude, I’d like end with two more ironic examples connected to the challenging, banning, and censoring of the book. Along with Huck Finn in the top ten list of banned books is Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel, Lolita, banned for “too much sex.” When the British philosopher Edmund Wilson suggested that Nabokov introduce his son to Twain’s works, Vera Nabokov was shocked. She considered Tom Sawyer to be “an immoral book that teaches bad behavior and suggests to little boys the idea of taking an interest in little girls too young.” One wonders if she ever read her husband’s banned book!
Two summers ago, I had the privilege to speak at the Sixth International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies. On the first night of the conference there was a big dinner to kick-off the conference. After dinner, a lifetime achievement award is given to one of the Twain scholars in attendance. The recipient was a man named Horst Kruse, from the University of Munster in Germany. This 75-year-old man was clearly surprised and humbled by this award. When he got to the podium he began to tell the following story (I’m paraphrasing this):
The first time I heard of Mark Twain, I was just a boy of 7. I was at a camp—camp with lots of other boys, and a young man in a uniform was reading a book to us all. That book was Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. When we finally left the camp, I never saw any of those boys again. But I’m sure we all remembered that time—that time where we were when we first hear of Mark Twain and of Huckleberry Finn. That time was WWII and the Nazi’s were running things.
His narrative trailed off a bit as we sat in the audience realizing what he had just told us. I hadn’t thought of that story until I began to write this talk. And I’m not quite sure what to say or how to end this talk except to say that Horst wouldn’t have met Twain then if Huck Finn hadn’t survived being banned or burned through the years. And that would have been tragic.