Why 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' Has Been Banned

Mark Twain
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Mark Twain isn't who most people think of when the topic of banned books comes up but the popular author has managed to earn a spot on the ALA's list of most contested books almost every year. His popular novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been contested for many reasons. Some readers object to the strong and sometimes racist language and think it's inappropriate for children. However, most educators think given a proper context the book is a great read. The history of people attempting to censor the novel goes back further than many realize.

A History of Huckleberry Finn and Censorship

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was first published in 1884. Twain's novel, a hilarious, rollicking adventure story, is widely considered one of the greatest American novels ever written. It follows Huck Finn—a poor, motherless boy with an abusive father, an ingenious way with words, a love-hate relationship with societal conventions, and a strong streak of decency—as he sails down the Mississippi River with Jim, a formerly enslaved person. Despite the praise heaped on the book, it has proven a magnet for controversy.

In 1885, Concord Public Library banned the book, attacking the novel as "absolutely immoral in its tone.” One library official noted that "all through its pages there is a systematic use of bad grammar and an employment of inelegant expressions.”

Mark Twain, for his part, loved the controversy for the publicity it would generate. As he wrote to Charles Webster on March 18, 1885: "The Committee of the Public Library of Concord, Mass., have given us a rattling tip-top puff which will go into every paper in the country. They have expelled Huck from their library as 'trash and suitable only for the slums.' That will sell 25,000 copies for us sure."

In 1902, the Brooklyn Public Library banned The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with the statement that "Huck not only itched but he scratched," and that he said "sweat" when he should have said "perspiration."

Why Was It Banned?

In general, the debate over Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has centered around the language of the book, which has been objected to on social grounds. Huck Finn, Jim and many other characters in the book speak in regional dialects of the South. It is a far cry from the queen’s English. More specifically, the use of the word “n*****” in reference to Jim and other African American characters in the book, along with the portrayal of those characters, has offended some readers, who consider the book racist.

Although many critics have argued that Twain’s ultimate effect is to humanize Jim and attack the brutal racism of enslavement, the book frequently flagged and protested by students and parents alike. It was the fifth most-frequently-challenged book in the United States during the 1990s, according to the American Library Association.

Yielding to public pressure, some publishers have substituted "slave" or "servant" for the term that Mark Twain uses in the book, which is derogatory to African Americans. In 2015, an ebook version published by the company CleanReader offered a version of the book with three different filter levels—clean, cleaner, and squeaky clean—a strange edition for an author known to enjoy swearing.