Huckleberry Finn opens with a warning from its author that misinterpreting readers will be shot. Despite the danger, readers have approached the novel from such diverse critical perspectives for 120 years that it is both commonly taught and frequently banned for a variety of reasons. Studying both the novels and its critics with an emphasis on cultural context will help you develop analytical tools essential for navigating this work and other American controversies. As you read this novel, you will combine Internet historical research with critical reading. Then you will produce several homework assignments exploring what readers see in Huckleberry Finn and why they see it that way.
Your Guiding Questions:
1. How does a critic’s cultural context help explain his or her opinions about a book?
2. What influences in my cultural context help explain my opinion about the book?
3. How does acknowledging my opinions’ origins in the culture around me, and recognizing that changes in culture cause changes in opinions, affect the way I state my opinion?
After completing this unit, you will be able to: read and write literary criticism.
perform historical/biographical analysis of non-literary works
define cultural context and describe aspects of others’ contexts as well
make inferences and develop the ability to provide convincing evidence to support your inferences.
What follows is an outline of assignments. Consider this your “syllabus” for discussion. As we explore the non-fiction writing of other authors in class, your homework each night will be to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In other words, as in any college-level class, you are responsible for keeping up with reading and with annotating the text so that you remember details without me having to remind you every day. You should finish the novel in three weeks. Be prepared for reading quizzes. Note: depending on time constraints, we might take more than one class period to discuss or to complete an assignment associated with the novel.
Lesson 1: Cultural Context
What is “cultural context”? What context do critics bring to bear upon their readings of Huck Finn? We will discuss two influences on readings of this novel 1) Victorian mores, and 2) recent debates about race and high school literary selections. You will write a 200-400 word critique of the novel in general or of a specific aspect of it. (Due: Jan. 4)
Lesson Two: Comparing and Contrasting Two Reviews of the Novel
You will read two different published critiques of the novel. Compile information into a Compare/Contrast chart. Use our information to write a paragraph incorporating these two views with your own. (Date: TBA)
How does the time in which a reviewer writes inform their criticism of Huck Finn? You will do web research on the time period during which the reviewers you chose in Lesson two were writing. I will provide you with links. You will learn about the reviewer’s time period with a study of contemporary historical events and social practices during the critic’s life, governing such realms as race, gender, age and class-based roles in society. Don’t forget—as you research think not only about what did happen during that period or before, but also what has not yet happened that may influence the way a critic might view this novel. For example, how could the fact that the Civil Rights Movement did not happen until after Booker T. Washington’s death explain some aspects of how Washington views Huckleberry Finn? (Date: TBA)
Lesson 4: The Influence of Social and Historical Context
Reread the two reviews you read. Make inferences: How do the historical and social realities you found in your cultural context research seem to influence critics’ views of Huckleberry Finn?
Lesson 5: Your cultural context/Twain’s context
Finally, you will try to indentify key elements of your own cultural context, compare your cultural context with those of the critics, and demonstrate how these influences appear in your own critiques of the novel. You will go on to use these skills to re-examine Mark Twain as a writer who is also a reader of history and culture – someone who has, just as you have done, examines how social and historical realities affect individuals. You can do this by examining the difference between the America of Twain’s childhood, which heavily influenced the plot and characters of the novel, and the America of the 1880s, which heavily influenced in complex ways Twain’s attitude toward the world of his childhood and the tone of his book. You will read an article that analyzes the changes in Twain’s understanding of the world, particularly the roles of African-Americans in it, in Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s essay, “Teaching Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” part of the PBS website on Huck Finn. While the essay is directed at teachers, it is accessible to sophisticated students (like you) who have experienced this unit’s overlapping lenses of your own views, critics’ views, and the views expressed by the novel’s characters. Fishkin refers readers to some of Twain’s later writings, which clarify the differences between the older Samuel Clemens’ views and the young, fictional Huck Finn’s views on race. (Due: Jan. 4)