Special Topic: English 391

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Special Topic: English 391

Huckleberry Finn and American Culture
Spring 2006 Instructor: Terry Oggel TTh 9:30-10:45; Bus 3130 Office: 701 W. Grace, Rm. 2208 Office Hours: M 4-5:30pm Phone: 828-9382

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 requires Virginia Commonwealth University to provide a “reasonable accommodation” to any individual who advises us of a physical or mental disability. If you have a physical or mental limitation that requires an accommodation or an academic adjustment, please arrange a meeting with Dr. Oggel at your earliest convenience. Honor Code: Students are expected to adhere to VCU’s Code of Honor, which makes explicit the university’s principles regarding truth and honesty in academic matters. Details about the Honor System are available online at http://www.students.vcu.edu/rg/policies/rg7honor.html or in the VCU Resource Guide. Student Conduct: Students are expected to adhere to VCU’s Student Conduct in Instructional Settings policy, which can be viewed online at http://www.at.vcu.edu/policies/studentconduct.htm. VCU e-mail is an official method of university communication. Students are responsible for information transmitted this way and should check their accounts daily. VCU’s email policy can be viewed at http://www.students.vcu.edu/rg/policies/rg7email.html.

Required Text

Mark Twain. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). U of California Press, 2002.

Required Reading

Mark Twain. Life on the Mississippi. 1882.


This Course Description and its accompanying Course Outline will be distributed in class in print and on my Website, http://www.people.vcu.edu/~toggel/, where they will be updated during the semester as necessary.


This class, in conjunction with my other classes this spring on the same theme, will be connected via e-mail for discussions and for dissemination of information. In effect, we’ll form our own mini-listserv. By e-mail, I’ll forward to you Websites focusing on people, events and texts both literary and legal that are relevant to our study.
Course Description

This course will examine Mark Twain’s famous novel within the culture that produced it and that has been deeply affected by it after it was published in the United States in 1885. Perhaps no other American novel has been as referred to and studied as often as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The novel has become an American cultural icon. For Ken Burns, whose two-part documentary on Twain aired in 2002, Twain was the quintessential American writer, more because of Huck Finn than for anything else Twain wrote or did. Toni Morrison, whose affecting essay on the novel we’ll study, says that she re-reads the novel regularly, each time finding surprising new depths.

But in its own time the novel was banned immediately upon publication for being "the veriest trash, suitable only for the slums." Just a month after the book was published, a newspaper in Clemens’ home state of Missouri summarized the objections:

It deals with a series of adventures of a very low grade of morality; it is couched in the language of a rough dialect, and all through its pages there is a systemic use of bad grammar and an employment of rough, coarse, inelegant expressions. It is also very irreverent. . . . The whole book is of a class that is more profitable for the slums than it is for respectable people.

—St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 17 March 1885
In 1885, the novel was no icon; it was dangerously iconoclastic. In some sectors of American culture it still is that today, still banned, still condemned as shabby and insulting.
In this course we will study the novel as a distinctly American work. We will consider the novel as it relates to aspects of Twain’s life and of America in the mid- and late-nineteenth century, including, for example: other works by Twain closely connected with Huck Finn, like Tom Sawyer (1876) and Life on the Mississippi (1882); the genre of boys’ books very popular at the time; Clemens’s search for an illustrator for the novel, as he prepared to publish it with his own new publishing company and to market it by the “subscription” method; the novel’s legacy among later American writers; and the novel’s reception by black and white readers during the 120 years since it was published. A deep study of this novel will be a deep study of American culture.
The text will be the 2002 authoritative edition based on the full manuscript, produced by the Mark Twain Project at the University of California–Berkeley, a veritable treasure-trove and a collector’s item by itself. We’ll read it in segments, as it was haltingly composed by Twain between 1876 and 1883. The course will feature a lengthy paper (15 pages), several student presentations, a class recitation, a midterm exam and a final exam. There will be various supplementary video and visual enhancements featuring Ken Burns, Hal Holbrook and others.

Methods, Objectives and Requirements

By way of a reminder: this is one of three courses on the same topic that are involved in this joint enterprise this spring semester—a topics course (this one), a senior seminar and a graduate seminar. There will be some overlap, with all three courses engaging in some of the same projects, but there will be differences, too, both quantitative and qualitative, with different assignments and requirements.
We will begin by studying the novel carefully, listening to Huck’s voice and through him other voices. We will read between the lines, alert for attitudes and predispositions, receptive to meanings that are disguised and camouflaged, listening to silences—for what isn’t said. At the same time, we will analyze the novel’s visual text, its illustrations, and the relationship between the two texts as they comprise one integrated text. The rest of the semester’s work will take off from this—everything we study will be in the context of our study of the novel.
During this early segment of the course, each student will identify a 200 word passage from the novel to memorize and recite aloud to the class by the end of the semester.
Then we will branch out into allied areas. Student presentations will aid us as we study such fields as law, nineteenth-century race relations in America, governmental and military history, politics, geography, and Twain biography and bibliography. In this context, we’ll read seminal essays by James Cox, Toni Morrison, Leslie Fiedler, Walter Blair and others.
For this course to succeed, students will need to be prepared for each class and then they will need to participate. Class participation by everyone will be crucial. There will be some lecturing, but most classes will be based on discussion. Students will have the opportunity to make oral presentations in class for extra credit; segments of some meetings will be led by students, alone or in groups of two or three. Needless to say, class attendance is required. Missed classes must be explained, in advance when possible and afterwards when not. As a policy, missed work cannot be made up.
By about one-third of the way through the semester, students should begin to focus on some aspect of the novel for deeper independent research. This process will develop with guidance from the instructor. A broad range of areas is available. Focusing exclusively on the art of the novel is fine, though it will need to include research. Finding external connections for research projects is tempting, too. Many possibilities will stem from the student presentations and other class projects. The (research) paper, around 15 pages including notes and list of works cited, will be the single most important piece of work produced.
Grades will be determined from the research paper, the oral presentations, two exams, and, very importantly, from class participation day in and day out. Unless otherwise noted, assigned readings must be read in toto by the day they are assigned.

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