Huckleberry Finn Terry Oggel Spring 2006

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ENGL 614: Seminar: Major Works

Huckleberry Finn
Terry Oggel

Spring 2006
T 4-6:40pm 101 Anderson

phone 828-9382 office 701 W. Grace, Rm. 2208 office hours M 4-5:30

email website

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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 will be on my Website,, where they will be updated during the semester as necessary. To become familiar with my site, you might take a look at it now.


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 both as a work of art and as a work that, for good and ill, is quintessentially American. Throughout its life, from the time it was published in the United States in 1885 till our time, it has been a problematic book. Its author was temperamentally an “oppositional” sort of person. Publicly and privately he was inclined to be negative, seeing things he was against more often than things he was for. Huckleberry Finn is a good example. There’s a lot of negativity in it. In the words of James Cox’s provocative essay, it’s a “hard book to take.” Of course, many of the things it opposes are disgusting, and Twain’s novel offers powerful reasons for opposing them.

Because of its conflicted nature, the novel has a checkered past. It’s true that in our time it is known world-wide to represent American culture. Ken Burns, whose two-part documentary on Twain aired in 2002, chose Twain as the single most representative American writer because of Huck Finn more than for anything else Twain wrote or did. Toni Morrison has written that she re-reads the novel regularly, each time finding surprising new depths.
But if Huck Finn is a “classic” now, it hasn’t always been so. In its own time it was reviled as being unfit for decent people to read. Immediately upon publication it was banned for being "the veriest trash, suitable only for the slums." 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 some parts of America it still is that today, still banned, still condemned as shabby and insulting.
Mark Twain took nearly a decade to finish this novel—far longer than he took to write anything else of these years. It is as though he was opposed to his own novel. We’ll try to understand the difficulties Twain encountered by reading the novel in segments, as it was haltingly composed by Twain between 1876 and 1883.
That will lead us to examine this problematic novel in multiple ways. Such avenues of inquiry include: the bio-textual history of Twain’s writing of the novel, beginning with its conception as the second piece of a two-part project starting with Tom Sawyer (1876); its early publishing history, first in serialized form in The Century Magazine and then in book form as the first production of Clemens’ own publishing company; its reception, in its own time and at various times through its 120 year history; its links with other texts by Twain—Tom Sawyer (and the popular genre of boys’ books and the dime novel) and Life on the Mississippi (1882); the creation of its visual text—its illustrator and the illustrations, in the context of the practice of book illustration in its time, including the depiction of visual types like immigrant Irish and blacks; Twain’s own views of his novel in retrospect, years later; and the impact of the novel on American literature.
The course’s text of the novel will be the 2002 authoritative edition based on the full manuscript, produced by the Mark Twain Project at the University of California–Berkeley. The volume is a veritable treasure-trove and a collector’s item by itself. A special feature will be the opportunity to study Twain’s manuscript of the novel, on a CD developed by the Buffalo and Erie County (New York) Public Library, which now houses the complete manuscript. Collateral reading will be in such works as Walter Blair’s seminal Mark Twain and Huck Finn; One Hundred Years of Huckleberry Finn, eds. Robert Sattelmeyer and John Crowley; Michael Patrick Hearns’ The Annotated Huckleberry Finn; and the new biographies of Twain by Fred Kaplan (The Singular Mark Twain) and Ron Powers (Mark Twain, A Life). There will be various supplementary visual enhancements featuring Ken Burns, Ron Powers, Hal Holbrook and others.
The course will include a number of student presentations focusing on the history and scholarship surrounding Huckleberry Finn. Regular and informed participation in class discussions is critical and is expected. Course grades will be determined from the research paper, oral presentations and reports, and very importantly from this class participation.
The paper will be a lengthy (25 pages of text) research-based study. It may treat any of a wide variety of topics. We will discuss and agree on the topics together.

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, a senior seminar and a graduate seminar (this one). The courses will include some of the same projects, but there will be differences, too, both quantitative and qualitative, and different assignments.
We will begin by studying the novel carefully, listening to Huck’s voice and, through him, other voices. We will read between the lines, looking for attitudes and predispositions, looking for meanings that are disguised and camouflaged, listening to silences—for what isn’t said. In particular, we will listen carefully for any lapse in Twain’s persona, Huck Finn, any moment when Mark Twain, not Huck, is speaking. As we listen to the (highly oral) verbal text, 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 our semester’s work will take off from this—everything we study will be in the context of the text(s) 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. We will discuss a variety of commentaries on the novel, brought into focus by student presentations that approach the work from fields such as law, nineteenth-century race relations in America, governmental and military history, politics, geography, and Twain biography and bibliography. It is here that we’ll read parts of the novel’s “prequel,” Tom Sawyer, its companion work, Life on the Mississippi, and seminal essays by James Cox, Toni Morrison, Leslie Fiedler, Shelley Fishkin, Walter Blair and others. At this time, we will examine the novel’s manuscript on CD, to observe Twain’s process of composition and revision, and to compare sections of the MS to the Univ. of California 2002 edition (the course text) with information about the text provided by the editors at the back of that edition.
As a graduate seminar, this course depends on student involvement. Students are expected to be prepared for each class and to participate in discussion. Though I will provide contextualizing information, the emphasis will be on the exchange of ideas among students. Segments of some meetings will be led by students, alone or in groups of two or three. 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. The research paper will be the single most important piece of work produced.
Grades will be determined from the research paper, the oral presentations, and, very importantly, from class participation. Unless otherwise noted, assigned readings must be read in toto by the day they are assigned.

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