NIGGER.

"There, now we're over the worst of it -- you can stand the rest middling easy." So says Huck about another problem in the "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."

If you can get past that word more than 200 times, literally, you can read the book once, from cover to cover, and form your own opinion as to whether Mark Twain's classic should be banned from America's junior and senior high schools. Myself, I've read "Huck Finn" many times and still love it -- and still think it has no place in the curriculum.

Getting past the "N-word," as difficult as it is, is not in fact the worst of it. Twain, whose novel is considered a stunning experiment in literary realism, uses the word out of Huck's mouth with harsh and cunning irony to reveal the slow psychological process of Huck finally coming to see his slave companion Jim not as a "nigger" but as a black man. Yet Twain's sarcasm often escapes many adults, let alone children, and even Twain's best intentions do not succeed in erasing the insidious racial stereotype that is part and parcel of his story.

Conservatives who sense the dilemma implied in the oxymoron of "liberal censorship" are quick to tweak the liberal sensibility that feels compelled to defend the dissemination of Neo-Nazi "literature" and cyber-pornography, while banning from public schools as "offensive" an unquestioned American literary masterpiece.

The latest "politically correct" version of Huck Finn is Walt Disney Pictures' "Tom and Huck." The Disneyfied Huck, as a lovable scamp, is often unrecognizable from Twain's Huck, who could disgustedly say things like: " \. \. \. you can't learn a nigger to argue. So I quit." Or " \. \. \. give a nigger an inch and he'll take an ell." Of course, the Disney film, based largely on "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" in which Huck Finn first appeared, censors both boys' use of the "N-word." It took Twain nearly a decade to produce the intended sequel, the "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," which remains famous and infamous for its "N-word" count, its racial controversy and its place in the canon of Western literature.

For both liberals and conservatives, the solution to the dilemma of banning or censoring a literary classic is to teach the novel in its "historical context." By this argument, school children should be taught the societal sources of Huck's attitudes about blacks, as well as his copious use of the offensive epithet.

Then along came former LAPD detective Mark Fuhrman in the O.J. Simpson trial, reminding us that this epithet, in the words of author William Styron, "remains our most powerful secular blasphemy." The "N-word" is actually an uglier word in the 1990s than it was in the 1830s or 1840s, when the action of "Huckleberry Finn" was supposed to take place. Yet those who advocate teaching the novel suggest that children, black and white, can comfortably learn to accept the word in the school curriculum.

That was not the experience of Connie Brown, when as an African American teenager, she was taught the novel in a predominantly white school. "I was embarrassed and uncomfortable," she recalls, "but after school, at home, my girlfriend and I would read the book to each other and laugh and laugh." Today, as a teacher at Washington's Capitol Hill Day School and as a doctoral student at Howard University, her "mixed feelings" about "Huckleberry Finn" are both personal and professional. "What embarrassed me," she argues, "was not just the word nigger,' but the way in which Jim is portrayed as a black man." Jim is the escaped slave who travels with Huck Finn on a raft down the Mississippi River.

This more sophisticated objection to "Huck Finn" was shared by the African American novelist and literary critic Ralph Ellison, author of "Invisible Man." Ellison based his critique of the novel, which he said "certainly . . . upsets a Negro reader," not on the "N-word" but on the blackface, minstrel show, comic conventions of the day that Mark Twain frequently employed, at times transcending Jim from such caricature and at times relegating him back into the Reconstructionist tradition that dictated, in Ellison's words, "that Negro males must be treated either as boys or uncles' -- never as men."

During the novel's early comic scenes, Jim might as well be a character in blackface. He can't get the point of the Bible story in which King Solomon threatens to cut a disputed child in two: "En what use is a half a chile? I would'n give a dern for a million un um." And he expresses wide-eyed, ignorant disbelief that people in France speak a different language: "Why, Huck, doan' de French people talk de same way we does?" Huck becomes increasingly frustrated with Jim until he observes, "I see it warn't no use wasting words -- you can't learn a nigger to argue. So I quit."

Slowly, during their raft trip down the Mississippi, Huck, the largely uneducated 12- or 13-year-old son of the town drunk, comes to see Jim in different terms. When Jim mourns for his children, still in slavery, Huck remarks, " . . . I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks does for their'n. It don't seem natural, but I reckon it's so . . . . He was a mighty good nigger, Jim was."

Yet, at times, it is hard for Huck to adjust to this larger view of Jim. As they approach the Ohio River, their route to the free states, Jim decides to earn enough money to buy his family out of slavery -- or to get an "Ab'litionist to go and steal them." Huck is shocked at how uppity Jim becomes at the thought of freedom and immediately resolves to turn him in.

When a fog causes them to miss the Ohio River, on a night they are separated and nearly drowned, Huck tries to convince Jim it was all a bad dream. As Jim realizes that Huck is trying to make him look like a darkie fool, he chastises Huck in measured tones, " . . . trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er dey fren's en makes 'em ashamed." Huck feels so ashamed himself that he admits, "It was 15 minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger -- but I done it, and I warn't ever sorry for it afterwards, neither."

On the first or second reading of the novel, it seems impossible not to get what Mark Twain is up to in these passages, as he describes Huck's struggles of conscience in a "slave state." Huck is such a confused product of his racist times that he views himself as morally depraved when he can't find the heart to turn Jim in. " . . . I got aboard the raft, feeling bad and low, because I knowed very well I had done wrong, and I see it warn't no use for me to try to learn to do right; a body that don't get started right when he's little, ain't got no show . . . ."

But many teenagers -- and even adults -- may find it hard to grasp the irony in Twain's telling, the deliberate saying of one thing when the reverse is intended. And the repeated use of the "N-word" diverts from Mark Twain's best moral intentions.

Moreover, when it comes to Jim's dignity as a man, Twain both giveth and taketh away. In part to ensure another popular success, Twain inserts Tom Sawyer into the conclusion of "Huckleberry Finn," and creates a series of comic chapters around freeing Jim, who has finally been captured. Tom Sawyer orchestrates an elaborate escape, in which Jim must act out Tom's ridiculous romance-book fantasies of a Bastille dungeon prisoner. Jim is forced to live with rats, snakes and spiders; to adopt a coat of arms; and to write mournful, florid inscriptions in his own blood. "Jim, he couldn't see no sense in the most of it, but he allowed we was white folks and knowed better than him . . . ," Huck says.

Twain returns Jim some dignity when the escaped slave selflessly gives himself up to aid a doctor in saving Tom Sawyer, shot in Jim's escape attempt. (Huck remarks of this, "I knowed he was white inside . . . .") However, after Tom recovers, he gives Jim $40 for "being prisoner" -- to which Jim responds with classic blackface, minstrel show superstition, good humor and dialect, "Dah, now, Huck, what I tell you? -- what I tell you up dah . . . . I tole you I got a hairy breas', en what's de sign un it; en I tole you I ben rich wunst, en gwineter to be rich agin; en it's come true." (When Disney made a movie based on "Huck Finn" in 1993, it solved the novel's problematic conclusion by simply revising it: Tom Sawyer is written out of the ending, Jim is thrown in a real jail, and Huck is the one who is shot -- thus sparing Jim the fate of being a foil for white boys' pranks.)

In the end, for the modern white or black reader who can get past the "N-word," the problem is not that Mark Twain uses the word in its "historical context," but that, for all his efforts to endow Jim with dignity and humanity, he ultimately leaves Jim a "nigger" -- if the word implies, among other things, being less than white. It took me a long time to grow uncomfortable with the novel, which I've read at least seven times, the last five to my son at his request. For several years, three pages of quotations from the novel have hung over my child's bed, including the first and last paragraphs, and several of Huck's more famous aphorisms, including: "I don't take no stock in dead people" and "You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft."

When my son was younger, I substituted the word "slave" or "Negro" for the "N-word" when reading to him. Later, I tried to teach him what the word meant, then and now. I would also stop to make sure he got Mark Twain's intended irony, as when Aunt Sally asks Huck if anyone was hurt in a steamboat explosion, to which Huck replies, "No'm. Killed a nigger."

Yet, slowly, over those hundreds of nights, I have grown to question whether "Huckleberry Finn" should be taught to my child when he enters junior high school next year, or even when he enters high school. Although he may understand the novel's anti-slavery theme, I doubt he and his classmates will fully comprehend the novel's subtle racial failings which escaped even the novel's great defender, T.S. Eliot. I think my son now understands well that it's really Huck and Tom, not Jim, that Twain is mocking, but I'm not sure he would be comfortable studying the book among a group of students who may well be puzzled and offended by its moral complexities and ambiguities.

This is not censorship or book banning. "Absalom, Absalom," by William Faulkner, is generally regarded as one of the few books that could rival "Huck Finn" for the title of the greatest American novel. Its themes of prejudice, incest and miscegenation, as well as its complexity of language and plot, make it hard for a teenager to grasp. No one would suggest that leaving it for college or adulthood is "censorship." Twain's book is equally morally complex, despite its surface accessibility to young readers. For one reason or another, in one forum or another, people have been trying to ban "Huckleberry Finn" ever since its American publication in 1885. Today, the controversy is focused on the teenage reader, and often becomes a debate about teaching the "N-word," rather than a debate about teaching the novel.

Perhaps Americans are simply as confused, anxious and frustrated about "Huckleberry Finn," as we are about race. T.S. Eliot wrote: "In Huckleberry Finn' Mark Twain wrote a much greater book than he could have known he was writing . . . certainly {it} is the one book of Mark Twain's which, as a whole, has this unconsciousness." As long as race remains the great American conflict, Ernest Hemingway will always be correct in claiming, "all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn' . . . ."

In the closing lines of the book, Huck, its supposed autobiographical author, tells us "there ain't nothing more to write about, and I am rotten glad of it, because if I'd a knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldn't a tackled it and ain't agoing to no more."

Could Mark Twain have "knowed what a trouble" it would be to read the book that was such a trouble to make? He begins the novel with this title page warning: "Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. By order of the Author."

More than a century after the publication of "Huckleberry Finn," it is a testimony to Mark Twain, the novelist, that we are still struggling to find its "motive," "moral" and "plot." And it is a testimony to Mark Twain, the social satirist, that he is still mocking us for it. Glen Skoler is a clinical and forensic psychologist.