Trying to Tame Huck Finn

NEH Chairman William R. Ferris talked recently with Boston teacher Nancy Methelis about the controversy surrounding the teaching of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. A film on the subject will air in January.

William R. Ferris: Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn is probably the most frequently t aught work of American literature in our schools. You have been teaching the book for many years to high school students. Why do you think it is important for students to read Huck Finn?

Nancy Methelis: It is important on so many levels. It is a book that students relate to because of the youth of the narrator. It is part of American history as well as American literature, so they can see its place within the spectrum of literature and history. I have always tried to set books within their historical context. This is particularly helpful with Huckleberry Finn because of the controversy that swirls around it and the language problem that has caused a good deal of trouble in many communities.

I have experienced some difficulty in that area, but it has never caused a parent to contact me o r a student to refuse to read the work. Rather, a conversation takes place between me and a particular student in which I try to assess his or her level of comfort or discomfort with the work. I have never had a case where a student was not able to read the book or not able to discuss it, even if that discussion included what it is about the book that offends the student, that makes it difficult.

All in all, I would say my experience has been very positive. Learning about the vernacular, learning what makes this such a special book in terms of the nineteenth century--the difference between starting a book with Huck Finn saying, "You don't know me without you have read a book by the name of Tom Sawyer by Mr. Mark Twain," or starting Moby Dick with "Call me Ishmael" --this is such a tremendous difference and takes the reader directly into the world of this young boy.

Ferris: Right.

Methelis: You need to think about the name Ishmael, what the allusion is. With Huckleberry Finn there is no barrier. There is nothing between one young person, the reader, looking at this other young person and leaping into his world. And I think it is a very modern world. Even though we tend to think about the modern world starting with World War I, we sometimes don't recognize the impact of the Civil War, not only on the country historically, but in terms of the literature.

Ferris: What can literature teach us about the past that a history textbook cannot?

Methelis: I have my very particular feeling about that, which is a certain trust in fiction to represent the truth without necessarily giving us the facts. The history book will give us facts, which we are told are true, but we know they are chosen for the particular text. It generally doesn't connect in the same emotional way that a fictional work does.

I use quite a bit of material in terms of slaves' narratives, material from the magazines at that time, newspapers, reviews of Huckleberry Finn in the 1800s as well as in the twentieth century, helping the students understand that the objections to Huckleberry Finn in the 1800s were very different from the objections that we have seen in recent times. It is quite surprising to students that the concerns that people had in the 1800s when the book was published had little to do with race, little to do with language, but much more to do with deportment, much more to do with how a young person was supposed to behave. That opens their eyes to how the book stays the same but the attitudes toward it change.

Ferris: Why do you think this particular book still raises so much controversy a century after it was published?

Methelis: I think it is because of unfinished business in our country. I think it is much less the book itself than the sensitivity that many African Americans have to racial pain they may be experiencing now. When my students have talked about the book--and by the way, African American students are very often the most open about discussing the book--that has been my experience. Rather than holding back, they really tend to open the class to discussion. I also find that when there is a fairly well-balanced classroom in terms of race, this makes for a much higher comfort level and better discussion for everyone. Some students would say, "I was offended by the language of the book, but this is language I hear every day." I don't know if we will ever reach a point where a student will not say that, but I imagine if we did, that the book itself would lose the power of that word. It would still be a book worth reading, but perhaps less controversial.

Ferris: I'm sure the racial makeup of a community influences how Huck Finn is received. What have your experiences been?

Methelis: Well, I have always taught in Boston. I haven't taught Huckleberry Finn throughout my career, but I have taught it for the past several years at Boston Latin School, which, up until very recently, maintained racial guidelines for entrance into the school along with tests and the grades the student received in the prior school. The balance was such that students looking around would realize there were all kinds of people with all kinds of backgrounds. The community, the school, the class--each of these has an impact on how this book is received by the student.

There are many things I can't control, but I have a certain amount of control over the climate in my own classroom. I think it is very important for the teacher to provide a climate that is as comfortable as possible. My concern when I read about controversy in other communities or other schools is that that climate is not being provided. It might be the influence of the community as a whole, it might be lack of preparation or knowledge in terms of the teaching staff, it might be the introduction of a book such as Huckleberry Finn without input from the teachers, without adequate training. It might be because of a change in the community as the makeup of a community changed. The film on the classroom controversy in Tempe, Arizona, over teaching Huckleberry Finn mentions that more minorities were moving into Tempe. Did that change the climate of the school? Were minorities being treated differently in the classroom? It is terrible to think that respect for a student would be diminished because of a word used in a book and that word could be used to somehow discriminate against a student.

It is very hard for me to say what is going on in another classroom or in another school or community, but I know that the makeup and the attitudes of the community are key.

Ferris: The film you mention shows your classroom talking about the book without ever using the "n" word. How did you get around that?

Methelis: I generally tell my students at the beginning that this word is not going to be used in class because it could hurt people in the class.

Ferris: Beautiful.

Methelis: I know that there are educators who feel that the word must be confronted, must be said, and must be discussed, and I'm not saying that this isn't the correct intellectual approach to take. But as a teacher in a public school with young students, high school students, I think that the possibility of hurting some students and desensitizing others is too high a price to pay.

The power of words has always been something that I have understood. Words hurt. I've never agreed with the "sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me." Names do hurt people every day. There has to be a place where students feel safe, and schools often provide those places. I'm determined to provide that type of atmosphere. Then students can talk.

There is a section in Huck Finn in which Huck's father, Pap, is ranting about a freed slave whom he saw who was educated, who was well dressed, who could read, who could write, and who voted. And he uses the "n" word over and over again. What I have done is retype that speech using African American in its place. The students, when they read that aloud, really understand the power of that word. I actually had a student two years ago, after beginning the book, very innocently ask me why couldn't he have used the word African American or at least used the word black? She didn't see that Twain was being true to his own time--as an author, he had to reflect the language of his time.

Ferris: Some believe that Mark Twain modeled Huck on his own childhood. How do your students relate to Huck?

Methelis: My students are very different in some ways. They are well educated. I'm sure there are many ways that individual students can relate. For example, Huck is an orphan. At least we believe his mother has died. Huck is orphaned in the book because his father is killed. Huck has a father who is an alcoholic and who beats him. Very often we don't know what is going on in the world of our students' lives outside of school. More is going on than we often suspect. I would feel very sad to know that I have students who are relating on that level, but they also see the boy as a survivor, who has dealt with great difficulty and who has managed to go beyond this.

They also can identify with his feelings as an outsider--not because they are necessarily outside of society, but that it is part of the adolescent world to disconnect from the adult world, to try to grow up, to push parents away. I know we have students who are struggling with finding a peer group, who are looking for an adult that they can connect with. For Huck, this is Jim. For them, it is sometimes a teacher, it is sometimes a coach or counselor, it could be a parent, it could be a different relative. In the world of Huck as an adolescent, even if it is 150 years ago, there are common elements in the alienation, in the hoping to connect, in finding friendship, in trying to find out what's right and wrong. I think these things are very relevant to students today. I think it is one of the many reasons that the book continues to live on.

Ferris: How do your students react to Jim, who on the surface seems somewhat stereotypical?

Methelis: I think they recognize the stereotyping at the beginning of the novel, but I think they also recognize that during their time on the river, that Jim grows beyond this stereotyping, that Jim is truly being shown as a man--a man who has been deprived of freedom, a man who has been deprived of his family--but a man, a man who loves his family. Little by little, the things that Huck has been told and taught about slaves, though he's not ready to say these things are not true of slaves, he little by little, through direct experience with Jim, finds out that these things are not true about Jim, that Jim loves his family, that Jim is always doing something more for him. He's not used to that in the adult men he has seen and lived with--his own father, the duke, and the king. He hasn't seen this kind of generosity, this real father figure. But the students also see the stereotyping, the superstition, the return of Jim to a more stereotypical figure at the end of the book.

Ferris: Twain grew up in a slave-owning family in Missouri, but he married an abolitionist and was an outspoken critic of racism. How does knowing about Mark Twain's background help students understand the book?

Methelis: I think it helps them move away from the idea that it is a racist book. This is a major problem--the people who say it is racist because it uses the language of a racist in the "n" word, and that it's racist in stereotyping Jim and in making him a butt of tricks and jokes.

I believe that that interpretation doesn't come from a deep reading. A more careful reading looks at the purpose behind the use of the word, at the characters who are saying it. Every major character that we meet in the book uses that language. But you also have Jim, not just as a father figure and friend, but with Huck apologizing to Jim for tricking him, for making fun of him.

Now, my students notice that. You may remember the student who speaks in the film about his feeling--and he is an African American student--that Huck did not feel that Jim was less than he because he apologized to him, and that this was something that was very difficult for him, that never in his life had he apologized to a slave. This was a tremendous turning point in his attitude toward Jim.

Ferris: I understand you asked your students at the end of the course on Huck Finn, "Was it worth it?" What kind of responses do you get?

Methelis: Generally, I get very favorable responses. There is a great deal that they like about the book. Most students enjoy it. They like the story, they enjoy the adventures. That is a part of what this book is about. Here is a boy. He is having adventures. Many things are happening. Some of them are funny.

Then there is the relationship between Huck and Jim. They really enjoy watching Huck change because it seems that Jim is the only person that can change Huck. All these other people have tried to. The widow tried to change him. His father tried to control him. Sally wants to adopt him. He is not having any of this. But just spending time with Jim has changed Huck, at least in relation to Jim. And it certainly hasn't made him wish to return to the civilization that supports slavery. At the end of the book, he is not interested. So the students like that very much.

Before we start the book at all, we usually go into the literary and historical background so the students are familiar with the change in American literature from romanticism through local color to realism. Students are often very proud of the fact that they can recognize the place of a novel or a story within this continuum, that they can see that Huckleberry Finn leaves the past behind, that it is moving in a new direction, that you have a new kind of narrator. Many of them have read, for example, Catcher in the Rye, and some of them can make that connection between a Holden Caulfield as a narrator and a Huck Finn, and that is very satisfying.

But there is the other side. Two or three years ago, one of my African American students, a young man--and I will say that he was the only African American student in a class of thirty students. As I said before, this is a less than an ideal situation. This student came from a home where this type of language was very much frowned upon. It had bothered him to read a book for school that contained this type of language, and it continued to bother him--not to the degree where he felt he could not read it or his parents felt that he should not read it, but he did write his ending paper with a wish that the book were not required.

Ferris: Does any other minority have its Huck Finn in literature?

Methelis: That is a very important question. I do not think so, not in terms of required reading. There are other books about which I take special care. For example, in teaching Night, I would make certain to be aware of whether I had Jewish students in the class, and if so, not to make them experts on Judaism or the Holocaust if they did not wish to be. A few years ago, in a particular class, I had two Jewish students. They did not wish to be experts. The following year, I had one student who was very eager to speak about Jewish history and customs. He had attended a Jewish day school prior to coming to Latin School. He felt quite confident and secure.

But Night is a very different kind of book. It's a book about the Holocaust written by Elie Wiesel, a Jewish man who experienced it, whereas Huckleberry Finn is a work about life in our South during slavery written by a white man and using language that is very often offensive to minorities, particularly when used by a white person. This, I think, puts it in a class by itself.

What if there are no minorities at all in the school? I still think it's terribly important to think about how a book such as Huckleberry Finn is taught, and I'm not sure it should be taught any differently at all. I think if it were taught differently because the school is, let's say, a totally white school, that school will not be ready to teach that book if the community changes, and communities do change. I think the sensitivity always has to be there.

I remember reading an article and using it with students, called, "Two Generations of Pain." In this article, a mother described her experience as an African American student in the fifties, the only African American student in a classroom when Huck Finn was taught, a memory that she had almost repressed until her own son had the same experience. At that point she became a mother who went to the school department to have that book removed from the required list. Her son, again, was the only African American student in the class, and the teacher required him to read aloud the part of Jim. Now, that stunned me. That is why I don't think helping teachers be more effective teaching controversial material should wait for community uprising.

Ferris: Right.

Methelis: I think that should be the attitude about all the literature. It should be taught with historical context, it should be taught with sensitivity. One should be just as concerned about the white students in the classroom as any other student. In that article, "Two Generations of Pain," the mother had felt that white students were feeling entitled because her son was feeling demeaned and that there was a seesaw going on there--that as her son's feelings of self-esteem were being diminished, that their feelings were being raised. That s houldn't happen. There is no white character in the book that should raise anyone's feelings of importance. Something is happening in the classroom that isn't right if something like that occurs.

Ferris: Like Huck Finn, there are dozens of other books, such as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, that have been censored from high school libraries and curricula. What role should a teacher or a school play in a community that wants to ban books?

Methelis: Well, I haven't had that experience personally. The only experience I've had in a long career are two requests by a parent that a child not be required to read a book. One was The Great Gatsby and the other was The Turn of the Screw.

One parent had heard that Gatsby glorified murder and adultery. The other parent felt that The Turn of the Screw dealt with the supernatural, which she felt was not a good influence. So parents' concerns come up in different ways.

But the role of the school in society has changed. Parents are no longer willing to say, "We are sending our child to school and the teachers are always right and the schools are always right." Parents want and are certainly going to have much more input into what happens in the schools.

I think that the schools and parent groups must communicate because it is the good of the child that we have to be concerned with here, not the ownership of the child. Especially with Huckleberry Finn, we shouldn't talk about owning people, that the child belongs to the school and the parents have no rights. That's not the world today. But I think sometimes parents have to be educated along with the students, and educators have to be educated along with the parents and students. Without this working together, books will be banned--books, I think, which are much more valuable than those which are put in their place.

To me, Huck Finn is important for many reasons, one of which is that it provokes more questions than it provides answers. This idea of questioning I think is very importantÑthat the students question, try to understand, discover there might not be only one answer but several, and also discover that there is some unfinished business and that perhaps the ending of the book, unsatisfactory as it is to so many readers, reflects that unfinished business.

Ferris: As we go into the next century and millennium, we have our work cut out for us in trying to deal with the roles of teaching in our schools around the nation. What words of wisdom or counsel do you have for what is needed to do a better job for all our students?

Methelis: Well, we are at a point now where we are very concerned about test scores. I would just caution that we be careful that our concern for test scores does not cause us to overlook the purpose of education--the love of learning, the excitement in opening up new doors. We don't want to restrict what is being taught to what is being tested, because in the end we can only test so much, and we want to make sure that important ideas that perhaps can't be put into a multiple-choice question or even a short-answer essay are considered. We don't want to put our schools in the position of reducing creative discourse, critical thinking, for the sake of having the school with the highest test score. I'm not against testing. I'm not against accountability. I'm not against the idea that there is a minimum that everybody needs to know. I just would like to make sure that we don't stop at the minimum.

Ferris: Here at the Endowment we are seeking to focus on our classrooms, especially K-12, around the nation. You are an example of what we would love to see in every classroom. I want to thank you.

Methelis: Thank you so much. NEH is doing some great work, and I have benefited from some of that work, much to my happiness. It was wonderful speaking with you.