Summary Example 2
English lnterp. sec C
October 3, 1995
In his essay "Born to Trouble: One Hundred Years of Huckleberry Finn,” Justin Kaplan explains much of society's misunderstanding of Mark Twain's book, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a novel that has endured criticism and rejection to the point of being banned from schools, libraries, and even a whole state. The essay defends and justifies Twain's choice of language and characters by revealing the true nature of the story. Kaplan explains that the reasons behind peoples' negative reactions to Huck Finn is due to Twain's intention of presenting a satire criticizing society as a whole. Society has dealt with this criticism by discrediting the book and attempting to limit its distribution.
Kaplan provides background for his essay by explaining that the main criticism that Twain's book suffered was that it dealt with foul language, poor morality, and basic filth. "Many readers found [the] great novel objectionable because it violated genteel standards of social and literary decorum" (Kaplan 354). Kaplan agrees that the main character, Huck, in terms of social etiquette, was definitely not a model adolescent. On the superficial side, his crudeness was perhaps a bad example for young readers to follow. Furthermore, Kaplan notes that the book was criticized for allegedly being racist. Some groups found such words as "nigger" as well as the portrayal of Jim, the runaway-slave, to be offensive. As a result, numerous school councils, libraries, and even the state of Massachusetts banned the novel.
Kaplan's response to Huck's critics is that the book has basically been misunderstood by its detractors. It is not merely a story describing the "boyhood highjinks" (Kaplan 355) of the young "hero" Huck, but is rather a satire of the American
society of the time that Twain writes about. Through the characters in the story, one sees the raw ugliness and foolishness of people. It is unfortunate that critics could only see and be offended by the superficial aspects of the book: the crude language and blasphemous concepts. As Kaplan's essay clarifies, Twain's intent was not to insult the readers simply with dirty words but rather to slander people in such a way that caused an evaluation of one's self and society as a whole. Kaplan writes: "Offensive as they seemed at the time, these violations of decorum only screened a deeper lever of threat and affront" (354.) Twain himself explains the:
"central and constitutive irony [of the book]: 'A sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat.' Huck's 'deformed conscience' is the internalized voice of public opinion, of a conventional wisdom that found nothing wrong in the institution of slavery and held as mortal sin any attempt to subvert it... conscience 'can be trained to approve any wild thing you want it to approve if you begin its education early and stick to it."' (Kaplan 354)
Kaplan maintains that the character of Huck, though seen as unkempt, lazy, impolite, and overall a naughty kid, is essentially the most "good" person in the story. Defending Huck, he explains that beyond Twain's "hero's" roughness, there is a good example for the book's readers to follow: Huck learns to overlook the ideas of what he should do in dealing with certain dilemmas that were installed in him through his upbringing (his "conscience") and eventually becomes more comfortable with going by what his heart tells him is right. Moreover, he "rejects what he considers to be an unjust and immoral law. He also rejects the craving for social approval that, according to Twain, motivate the behavior of most of us" (Kaplan 355.) Kaplan's intention is to show that through becoming more of an individual thinker, Huck ultimately becomes a better person.
Kaplan does not limit him self to defending Twain 's characterization of Huck.
He defends Twain's choice of language as well by explaining how potentially offensive words such as "nigger" were essential due to Twain's attempt to be authentic and true to the time in which the story is based. He points out that if anything, Twain is trying to show the ignorance and foolishness of American people living in the time during which slavery was common practice. The situation is analogous to the use of racial slurs such
as "gooks" and "chinks" uttered by American soldiers in movies portraying the Vietnam War. Kaplan writes that "One has to be deliberately dense to miss the point Mark Twain is making here and to construe such passages as evidences of his 'racism."' (357) Kaplan adds that Twain was known by friends to have a poor opinion of racism and the abuse of basic human rights. Twain's intention, as interpreted by Kaplan, was to offend people in such a way that caused them to question their own actions.
Kaplan suggests that such reactions to the book as banning it were simply a "way of dealing with [its] profound affront" (355). He basically says that those who criticized the novel for being crude and racist simply missed Twain's essential message. People who were able to read Twain's true meaning were unable to accept it and didn't want to see or admit to having understood it. Perhaps the book is indeed unsuitable for children, as some of its heavy ideas questioning social morals may be hard to understand at their level, but those who attempted to regulate and limit the distribution of the book would best be served by taking Twain's message more seriously themselves.
Kaplan, Justin. "Born to Trouble: One Hundred Years of Huckleberry Finn." Mark
Twainn 's Advenntures ofHuckleberry Finnnn: A Case Study in Critical Controversy.
Gerald Graff and James Phelan, eds. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.348-