When the principal of Mark Twain Intermediate School in Fairfax County followed the advice of the school's racially mixed human relations committee and recommended that "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" be removed from the school's curriculum, he was not acting without precedent. Misguided guardians of the moral integrity of schoolchildren have often attempted, particularly in Twain's own lifetime, to prevent young minds from being exposed to the profoundly moral views of the 13-year- old, pipe-smoking, marvelously imaginative liar whose love for the runaway slave, Jim, grows to such proportions that he would risk eternal damnation to protect him.
A letter written by Twain to a Brooklyn librarian who was seeking to ban both "Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn" from the children's room of the library has not, I suspect, been read by most faculty members teaching at a school named in honor of one of our greatest American artists. Let me share a portion of it with them: "I wrote 'Tom Sawyer' and 'Huck Finn' for adults exclusively, and it always distresses me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean. I know by this by my own experience, and to this day I cherish an unappeasable bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible before I was 15 years old. . . . More honestly do I wish that I could say a softening word or two in defense of Huck's character since you wish it, but really, in my opinion, it is no better than those of Solomon, David, and the rest of the sacred brotherhood."
That Twain firmly believed that the behavior and character of his first-person narrator was designed to be morally instructive to young people is obvious. Countless individuals in this culture, including myself, know from the experience of reading the book at an early age that he was absolutely correct.
Apparently the faculty members as well as the parents and the administrators who concurred with the recommendation to bar teachers from assigning the novel--or even reading it aloud in class--feel otherwise. They object, we are told, to "the flagrant use of the word 'nigger' and the demeaning way in which black people are portrayed in the book." "Nigger" is, of course, a terribly offensive word in our own time and should definitely not be used by anyone who respects the rights and integrities of others. But it might help to explain to those students who might continue to study the book at the intermediate school that in slave states the word was merely the ordinary colloquial term for a slave, and not necessarily abusive.
More important, however, as the historical record also shows, Twain was a violent opponent of the institution of slavery, and "Huckleberry Finn" can and should be read as one of the most forceful indictments ever made against the subjugation of any class of human beings by another.
Anyone, including adolescents, who has carefully read the book should have little difficulty recognizing the many instances in which this theme is abundantly obvious. Since there is not sufficient space here to detail all of them, I will only touch briefly on that climactic moment when Huck, in defiance of what he has been taught to be the will of God in his own morally bankrupt society, elects to imperil his mortal soul.
Subjected, as many children in this country continue to be, to a religious education in which the interpretors of spiritual verities seek to sanction the view of black people as innately inferior, Huck reflects late in the narrative upon his many efforts to help Jim to escape and concludes: "And at last, when it hit me all of a sudden that here was the plain hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in Heaven, whilst I was stealing a poor old woman's nigger that hadn't ever done me no harm, and now was showing me there's One that's always on the lookout, and ain't agoing to allow such miserable doings to go only just so fur and no further, I almost dropped in my tracks I was so scared." Feeling oppressed with guilt, realizing that "people that acts as I'd been acting about that nigger goes to everlasting fire," Huck writes a letter to Mrs. Watson indicating where Jim can be found. But then immediately thereafter he recalls-- in a passage that is one of the best illustrations in literature of the power of agape love --the many acts of kindness displayed by Jim toward himself, looks once again at the letter, and says to himself, "'All right, then, I'll go to hell'--and tore it up."
The message here, which is pervasive in this marvelous novel, is that truly moral acts are, often enough, undertaken in defiance of a so-called moral majority. And it is that which this particular member of the sacred brotherhood has chosen to do. If studying "Huckleberry Finn" is in anyway to hurt students at Mark Twain Intermediate School, it can only be because those who teach the book have failed to understand it.
But there is, of course, a larger issue here. When we prevent our children from being exposed in the classroom to the best that has been known and said in our literary tradition, we not only narrow the range of their educational experience, but we also--unintentionally to be sure--help them to grow into individuals, like the members of the Shepherdson and Grangerford families in the novel, who might commit senseless acts of destruction out of a lack of understanding of the complexities of moral life. If "Huckleberry Finn" is, as an administrative aide at the school put it, "poison," then I suspect my own 11- year-old daughter must have a remarkably immune system. She even appears to thrive on it.