top of page

The real reason that Huck Finn has been banned for 137 years

… not simply because of the “N-word”

Samuel Clemens, known better as Mark Twain, was happy that his book “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” was so successful after its publication in 1876. However, he did not think that the message that he wanted to convey was serious enough.

In short, he thought that Tom Sawyer was somewhat of a light-weight.

So, he wrote “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” and it is certainly not a light-weight.

That novel has been banned for 137 years, since its release in 1885. Ironically, the banning of Huck Finn resulted in its becoming a best-seller.

However, while in recent years, Twain’s use of the “N-word” in referring to Huck’s friend Jim has been cited as the reason for the censorship of the book, that has only been true since the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s.

Banned immediately after publication

The censorship of what is now considered a classic started very quickly, and it occurred for a number of reasons,

Immediately after the book was published, it was banned in Concord, Massachusetts, and has been banned several times since then from libraries because of what some viewed as inappropriate content.

A 1907 article in the Library Journal reported that Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) had been banned somewhere every year since its publication.

Elizabeth R. Purdy, Ph.D., “Adventures of Huck;eberry

Finn,” The First Amendment Encyclopedia

Book was a satire

What many did not realize at the time, nor do today, is that the book is intended to be a satirical look at the society that the author envisioned. However, the criticism is sharp, and Twain, the Midwesterner, was critical of what he perceived in society in the 1800s,

The most striking part of the book is its satirical look at racism, religion and other social attitudes of the time.

While Jim is strong, brave, generous and wise, many of the white characters are portrayed as violent, stupid or simply selfish, and the naive Huck ends up questioning the hypocritical, unjust nature of society in general.

“1885, February 18: Mark Twain publishes “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,”

Americans did not like the way in which the people of the country were being portrayed, and the criticism was ubiquitous,

Huck Finn, a rebellious teenager, fakes his own death to escape an alcoholic father and throughout the book challenges the mores of his society.

Some Americans did not view Huck as a positive role model for young readers. Immediately after publication, the book was banned on the recommendation of public commissioners in Concord, Massachusetts, who described it as racist, coarse, trashy, inelegant, irreligious, obsolete, inaccurate, and mindless.

The First Amendment Encyclopedia

Book became bestseller through controversy

Twain actually appreciated the censorship,

Two decades later, the New York Public Library banned Huck Finn from the children’s reading room because Huck scratched when he itched and said “sweat.”

When informed of the censorship, Twain remarked that the controversy would only increase sales. Indeed, the book became a bestseller. By 1960 it had sold 10 million copies; more than forty different editions have been printed in the United States alone.

Although Twain’s Tom Sawyer initially overshadowed Huck Finn, most scholars have since come to consider the latter book Twain’s best work and one of the great American novels.

The First Amendment Encyclopedia

“The beginning of American Literature”

While many have condemned it, the book is one that American youth continue to read, and critics point out its value,

In the 1950s, the book came under fire from African American groups for being racist in its portrayal of Black characters, despite the fact that it was seen by many as a strong criticism of racism and slavery. As recently as 1998, an Arizona parent sued her school district, claiming that making Twain’s novel required high school reading made already existing racial tensions even worse.

Aside from its controversial nature and its continuing popularity with young readers, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been hailed by many serious literary critics as a masterpiece. No less a judge than Ernest Hemingway famously declared that the book marked the beginning of American literature: “There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”

An accurate portrayal

While the use of the “N-word” has been cited most often as a reason for young people to avoid reading the book, teachers can inform readers that the word was not considered to be as derogatory as it is today.

In fact, that was a portrayal of the way people spoke in those days from the grammatical problems to the word that is considered to be racially-charged today,

One early criticism of Huck Finn concerned Twain’s intentional use of bad grammar in the book. In general, the language is considered an accurate representation of that spoken by rural populations in the pre–Civil War South.

Some critics accept Twain’s presentations as characteristic of the time portrayed but also believe that the effect of some of the racially charged language continues to contribute to negative racial stereotypes. Some feminists have disliked what they consider to be Twain’s negative, sexist portrayals of females in Huck Finn.

Alleged racist content has been the reason most often cited for banning or challenging Huck Finn, particularly since 1957 and the rise of the civil rights movement in the United States. From the beginning, however, some critics objected to Huck Finn’s “racial content.” Those critics note that Twain uses the word nigger 213 times in the book. Detractors have also objected to what they call Jim’s “childlike character” and maintain that he lacks credibility as an African American.

So, the truth, as they say, is complicated. The primary reason for the banning of the book was its criticism of slavery and the way in which white characters were portrayed. Twain was not a racist in any way, but he was an excellent satirist.

930 views0 comments


bottom of page