The story of Huckleberry Finn, however, does not end with the death of its author. Through the twentieth century, the novel has become famous not merely as the crown jewel in the work of one of America’s preeminent writers, but also as a subject of intense controversy. The novel occasionally has been banned in Southern states because of its steadfastly critical take on the South and the hypocrisies of slavery. Others have dismissed Huckleberry Finn as vulgar or racist because it uses the word nigger, a term whose connotations obscure the novel’s deeper themes—which are unequivocally antislavery—and even prevent some from reading and enjoying it altogether. The fact that the historical context in which Twain wrote made his use of the word insignificant—and, indeed, part of the realism he wanted to create—offers little solace to some modern readers. Ultimately , The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has proved significant not only as a novel that explores the racial and moral world of its time but also, through the controversies that continue to surround it, as an artifact of those same moral and racial tensions as they have evolved to the present day.
I teach a course on Twain every two years (I am at Elmira College, Elmira, NY — I am a member of the english department). I decided years ago that I would teach Huck Finn not within the chronology of Twain’s publications (not in the order of publication) but within the chronology of the works’ composition. I teach “Old Times on the Mississippi,” Tom Sawyer, the first 18 chapters of Huck (to the point where Twain stopped composing — when Huck asks Buck Grangerford, “What’s a feud?”), the first 12 of Prince and the Pauper, a bit of Huck up to around chapter 20-21, A Tramp Abroad, the rest of Prince and the Pauper, the second part of Life on the Mississippi, and the end of Huck Finn. Students are confused at first, but in the end they get a much different idea of Twain as a working writer, as someone who was constantly writing and fashioning his message. It’s a luxury I have in the college classroom. And it has transformed my reading of Twain and his writing.