Lawrence school officials weigh how to teach ‘Huckleberry Finn’

At left is an AP photo of a first-edition copy of Mark Twain's Adventures

Lawrence school district officials said Monday that there has been no official change in policy regarding the teaching of Mark Twain’s classic novel “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” although talks have been ongoing behind the scenes about how to teach the controversial novel to a new generation.

Their comments came after Lawrence High School’s student newspaper, The Budget, published an article Thursday, saying the book’s status as required reading in 11th-grade English classes was being challenged.

“‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ continues to be a district-approved common novel for high school American Literature classes,” district spokeswoman Julie Boyle said in an email to the Journal-World. “High school teachers may choose to teach an alternate text. Parents (and) students may choose to opt-out and be provided an alternative text, just as they may choose to do with any part of the curriculum.”

But Sam Rabiola, who chairs the English department at Free State High School, said three meetings have taken place on a districtwide level since last spring to talk about how to teach “culturally sensitive” material, and he said “Huckleberry Finn” has been at the center of all three meetings.

“That is the one work we have talked about so far,” he said.

“Huckleberry Finn” was a controversial book when it was first published in 1884, and it remains one of the single most banned or challenged books in American literature. It is the fictional tale of a young boy from Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, Mo., who floats down the Mississippi River with an escaped slave named Jim.

Along the way, they encounter almost every form of human corruption, and Jim in particular is the victim of mistreatment along the way.

It is written in the regional dialects that were common at that time, and it is full of vernacular that most people today find so offensive as to be socially unacceptable in any form. The N-word appears more than 200 times in the novel.

The year after the book came out, the Concord, Mass., Public Library became the first to ban it, calling it “absolutely immoral in its tone.” Twain, however, reportedly was not concerned about that, writing to a friend that the publicity over the ban would only increase the book’s sales.

Brad Allen, director of the Lawrence Public Library, said the book has come under renewed criticism in recent years for its “white savior narrative,” which refers to a white person helping nonwhite people in ways that can be seen as self-serving.

At the same time, it is also considered a classic work of American literature. Some have called it an American version of Homer’s “Odyssey.” It’s also considered a satire on the racist, pre-Civil War culture of the South, something Twain himself strongly opposed, written just as the Reconstruction era was coming to an end.

“As with all literature, we can address it on a number of levels,” Rabiola said. “It’s not just a story, it’s not just a press release. That’s what literature does. It’s rich and it’s full, and there are lots of things we can talk about, and unfortunately life is sometimes none too pleasant, not that we shouldn’t work to correct that.”

Lawrence school board president Shannon Kimball insisted that the district is not banning the book, but merely searching for the proper way to present it to students.

“What I have heard has not been of the tenor that we’re telling staff they can’t use this material anymore,” she said in a phone interview. “It’s more along the lines of, how are they using it, how are we teaching it, is this the right resource to be using for those things or should we be considering other resources.”