Recently I’ve been reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with my daughter, the Castle Builder. When she started it, she struggled with the dialect, so we decided to read it together, a process that brought me back in contact with a classic I haven’t read in years. Since I first read the book in my own school years, lots of things have intruded on my memory of the actual story, most notably all the talk about Huck Finn as one of the most banned books ever, because of the language it uses. And I admit that getting back into the book after all these years I was startled by how difficult it was to stomach the racial slurs it uses, and how much I disliked reading them aloud, despite understanding the historical context. And yet I saw what a powerful affect it had on both of us readers, how it shows so clearly the twisted “morality” that Huck is struggling with, a code that taught him to respect slaves not as people, but as property. Part of Twain’s genius is how he has Huck think about how bad he is for helping Jim, but how he just can’t help it, he’ll have to be bad, because he loves Jim. What a brilliant skewering of the wrong-headed rules of the nineteenth century south!
And I guess if I had been pressed as to what I remembered about the book before rereading it, it would have been that. What I’d forgotten was how funny the thing is. The other day we were reading a scene in which Huck is discussing the duke and the king, and the two of us broke out laughing for something like five minutes. When I think about writers and their achievements, I can’t think of a much better one than for an almost 130 year old book to inspire tears of laughter in my high schooler. I guess that’s why they call them classics.