Classic Book of the Month – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, March 2nd. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. 

Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: our Classic Book of the Month.

For March, reviewer Emily Whitten recommends a novel some people would like to strike from America’s literary canon: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

AUDIOBOOK: …and whilst I eat my supper, we talked and had a good time. I was powerful glad to get away from the feuds, and so was Jim to get away from the swamp. We said there warn’t no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.

EMILY WHITTEN, REVIEWER: That’s Huckleberry Finn in the Recorded Books audio version of Mark Twain’s classic novel.

Twain was born Samual L. Clemens and grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, in the mid 1800s. He worked early on as a printer’s apprentice and then a journalist. When he later became a novelist, he drew on his time near the mighty Mississippi River. Literature professor William R. Handley explains in the History Channel film, Mark Twain: Father of American Literature.

HANDLEY: Mark Twain’s best-known and best-loved books, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer published in 1876 and Huckleberry Finn published in 1885 are probably the reason that Ernest Hemingway famously said that all American literature comes from Mark Twain. 

Huckleberry Finn made friends as well as enemies from the start. In his first few years, some librarians rejected the book as “rough, coarse, and inelegant.” Since the 1950s, many educators and parents have objected to Twain’s use of a racial slur which appears over 200 times in the book. Today, that criticism has only increased. 

Jocelyn Chadwick, president of the National Council of Teachers of English, sympathizes with Twain’s critics. But she doesn’t want Twain canceled.

CHADWICK: We do have colleagues who say that, let’s get rid of all the old literature. It has absolutely nothing to say to us. But it does. It has so much to say to us. And to our students. To make them feel that what’s happening to them right now is not new to them. But it’s something we as a nation and a world have experienced since the dawn of time. And probably will experience again. 

Chadwick suggests readers pair Twain with an author like Frederick Douglass, a former slave. Teacher and homeschooler Betsy Farquhar of agrees that pairing Twain and Douglass could be fruitful. She often compares different authors to help students in her high school classes consider worldview.

FARQUHAR: Where is Frederick Douglass saying things that we think are great and thought provoking, and urging us on to love and good deeds? Where is Mark Twain doing that? Where are they doing things that are in opposition to each other? And which one is more Biblical?

Readers can see important elements of the conflict between Twain’s perspective and a Biblical worldview in the book’s climax. In the first half of the story, Huck and Jim became friends as they escaped together, rafting down the Mississippi. But Huck feels guilty. His slaveholding society tells him that Jim isn’t a human being—he’s a piece of property. To earn God’s approval, Huck believes he must return Jim to his owner. So Huck writes a letter to turn Jim in. But in a surprising twist, he reconsiders.

In the following audio clip, Benedict Whalen of Hillsdale College explains what that statement means. This comes from Part 4 of Hillsdale’s free course on Mark Twain.

WHALEN: This moment is, constitutes, Huck’s moral triumph. His conclusive recognition that Jim is a human being, not a piece of property. That Jim should not be owned. Huck refuses that moral system by saying all right then, I’ll go to hell.

Betsy Farquhar explains how she might discuss this climax and the book’s larger context with her students.

FARQUHAR:  You can make an argument that Huckleberry Finn really celebrates the image of God, even in an enslaved person like Jim, because Huck is treating Jim with way more respect than Jim would have been treated in his original situation. So you can, you can start to wrestle, especially with high school kids with this, this tension. Does it go as far as we would want it to? No. But are there glimmers of that from the 1800s? in America? Well, sure.

Christians have no required book list outside the Bible. If you don’t want to read the book, or if you’d prefer your kids read an edited version—one without racial slurs—I get that. 

The one position Christians can’t hold: we can’t ban God from our lit class or our understanding of books. And that means we have to ask different questions from many of our liberal and conservative friends. Betsy Farquhar suggests a few to keep in mind.

FARQUHAR: What is this book’s view of who God is? Is there any reference to the divine? And that’s going to look different in the Odyssey than it’s going to look in Huckleberry Finn. Even if they call it Christian? Is it Biblical? Let’s unpack that.

In the instance of Huck Finn’s climax, we can appreciate Huck’s decision to reject slavery and treat Jim as a human being. But we also see that spiritually, Huck seems to fall prey to a false dichotomy. People who reject slavery don’t have to reject God. 

Frederick Douglass can help us on that point. Many people of his day wrongly assumed that Douglass’s criticism of slaveholding Christians meant he was anti-Christian. So, Douglass wrote an appendix to his autobiography. In it, he explains that his rejection of slavery flows from his love for Christ. This audio clip is from a Libribox recording read by Jesse Zuba. 

ZUBA: I love the pure, peaceable and impartial Christianity of Christ. I therefore hate the corrupt, slave-holding, woman-whipping, cradle-plundering hypocritical slaveholding religion of this land.

Reading Twain and Douglas together reminds us we desperately need Christ to enlighten our thinking. Without Him, we can’t adequately critique the sin in ourselves and our society—or find a solution to it. We need His help to know which books should we read? And why and how should we read them?

I hope our classic book of the month, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, prompts us to wrestle with those questions. But whether you eat or drink or read Huck Finn, whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. 

I’m Emily Whitten.

(Photo/Mark Twain) Huckleberry Finn

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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