The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is both one of the most highly acclaimed and one of the most frequently criticized works of American literature.
The story is set in the Mississippi valley in about 1840, and is written using the dialects, grammar and epithets of that time and place. In addition, some of the illustrations created by E. W. Kemble for the original publication, and included in this byGosh.com online version, reflect the racial stereotypes of the 19th century.
From the Random House Teacher’s Guide to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:
“The most frequently attacked aspect of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is its wholesale use of the word, nigger. As Justin Kaplan points out, the word appears 215 times in the book. Its use in any but the most formal and serious of contexts is as objectionable today as it was unremarkable in the nineteenth century. The best approach here, we believe, is one of honesty and historical accuracy. In Huck’s and Jim’s society, the word was used by blacks and whites alike to identify anyone of African heritage (and frequently of any nonwhite heritage). As used by whites, it was a term of disparagement and degradation. As used by blacks, it was a term sometimes of identification, sometimes of contempt; as either, it carried the burden of degradation imposed by the white masters and rulers. The fact is, the word was used by everyone, white or black. Mark Twain would most likely scoff at today’s politically correct euphemism (“the ‘N’ word”) and prefer to confront head on the word itself, its accumulated meanings, and the social, economic, and personal realities from which it sprang and which it continues to reflect.”
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is best understood and appreciated by young readers if they have an understanding of the social context in which the story takes place. There are many sources of information on the history and consequences of slavery in the United States. Parents and young people are encouraged to refer to Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass.