"We catched fish and talked, and we took a swim now and then to keep off sleepiness," President Reagan said. "It was kind of solemn, drifting down the big, still river . . ."

In the ballroom of the Washington Hilton Hotel, the president was reading yesterday from "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."

Mark Twain's novel has been controversial for most of its 100 years, both hailed as an American classic scornful of bigotry and periodically criticized as "racist." Occasionally the book has been removed from schools.

Yesterday Reagan said he read it in school himself. He said the book, about the mischievous Huck and his friend Jim, a runaway slave, floating down the Mississippi River on a raft, epitomized values American schools should be teaching.

"Huck works hard to keep Jim free, and in the end he succeeds," Reagan said. "I believe the book says much about the moral aims of education -- about the qualities of heart that we seek to impart to our children."

The president spoke to about 1,500 persons at the annual meeting of the National Association of Independent Schools, a group of private-school educators. He said students at their schools, as well as public ones, "should not only learn basic subjects, but basic values." The values to be taught, Reagan said, should include "the importance of justice, equality, religion, liberty and standards of right and wrong."

In 1982 "Huckleberry Finn" was at the center of sharp controversy in Fairfax County when a junior high school named after Mark Twain sought to remove the book from its curriculum. The school's human relations committee said the book was "racist" because of its "demeaning" portrayal of blacks and liberal use of the word "nigger."

Senior Fairfax administrators overruled the decision. But last summer it was removed from school reading lists in Waukegan, Ill., for similar reasons.

Just before a stage adaptation of "Huckleberry Finn" opened in Chicago last month, the book was criticized at a forum as "racist trash." The criticism was led by John H. Wallace, who had spearheaded the drive against it in Fairfax.

Yesterday, however, Reagan said the book, far from being antiblack, teaches a "hatred of bigotry."

"In the decades to come, may our schools give to our children the skills to navigate through life as gracefully as Huck navigated the Mississippi," Reagan declared. "May they teach our students the same hatred of bigotry and love of their fellow men that Huck shows on every page, and especially in his love for his big friend, Jim. And may they equip them to be as thankful for the gift of life in America in the 21st Century as was one Huckleberry Finn in the 19th."

Mark Twain, Reagan said, "presents the humor, openness and purity of heart so characteristic of the American spirit."

Yesterday several literary scholars agreed with Reagan's view that the book tells a tale against racial prejudice, but they were skeptical that "Huckleberry Finn" is as positive about the values the president wishes to promote as Reagan takes it to be.

"Huck has the conventional prejudiced views of his time," said Sterling Brown, a retired Howard University English professor. "But Jim overthrows them, and convinces Huck he is wrong . . . There's a great deal of irony there. But it's irony in the right direction."

"Much of what Reagan says is true," said Doris Grumbach, a professor at American University and former literary editor of The New Republic. "But why would Huck run away if he was appreciative of life in America? He wants to be wild and free, to smoke when he pleases and not go to school."

Grumbach agreed that Huck "does have a purity of heart, but the point is that this boy knows more about human good and evil than any schoolboy would . . . Mark Twain had a deeply held belief that education doesn't matter a bit."