Depiction of Huckleberry Finn on 1917 sheet music cover
Credit: Courtesy of American Memory.
Huckleberry Finn opens with a warning from its author that misinterpreting readers will be shot. Despite the danger, readers have been approaching the novel from such diverse critical perspectives for 120 years that it is both commonly taught and frequently banned, for a variety of reasons. Studying both the novel and its critics with an emphasis on cultural context will help students develop analytical tools essential for navigating this work and other American controversies. This lesson asks students to combine internet historical research with critical reading. Then students will produce several writing assignments exploring what readers see in Huckleberry Finn and why they see it that way.
After completing this unit, students will be able to
a. The Time Line of African-American History, 1852–1925, which is part of the EDSITEment-reviewed Library of Congress American Memory Collection.
b. The National Women's History Project's A Timeline of the Women's Rights Movement 1848–1998, a link on the EDSITEment-reviewed History Matters site.
c. A Brief Timeline of American Literature, Music and Movies, 1890–1929, a link also on the History Matters site.
d. The 1900s Timeline, from About.com and accessible through the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library.
e. Harlem 1900–1940: Timeline, a timeline from the EDSITEment-reviewed Harlem 1900–1940: An African American Community.
f. Mark Twain in His Times: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Contemporary Reviews, on the EDSITEment-reviewed Mark Twain in His Times.
g. Huckleberry Finn Debated, 1884–2001, edited by Jim Zwick and linked from the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library.
After reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, students write a short (200 to 400-word) critique, either of the novel in general or of a specific aspect of the novel. [See .pdf file, Introduction to Literary Criticism and Analysis for guidance on writing a critique]
Students then compare and contrast the ideas in two published critiques or reviews of the novel, ideally from two different authors and time periods, with their own opinions as expressed in their critiques.
Students will then explore the cultural context of each critic whose work they are analyzing. They will look at contemporary historical events and social practices during the critic's life, governing such realms as race, gender, age and class-based roles in society.
a. The Time Line of African-American History, 1852-1925, from the EDSITEment-reviewed American Memory Collection.
b. The National Women's History Project's A Timeline of the Women's Rights Movement 1848-1998, a link on the EDSITEment-reviewed History Matters site.
c. Gonzaga University's A Brief Timeline of American Literature, Music and Movies, 1890-1929 , a link from History Matters.
d. The 1900s Timeline, accessible through the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library.
e. Harlem 1900-1940: Timeline, a timeline from the EDSITEment-reviewed Harlem 1900-1940: An African American Community.
f. Duke University's Ad*Access site, a terrific look at popular culture through advertising, a link through History Matters.
a. Consider how your school's history or social studies department could provide other resources for students; this may be a good opportunity for interdisciplinary cooperation.
b. As students find historical and social markers that may influence critics, it will be beneficial for them to note what did not happen or had not yet happened. This may influence their inferences in the next step. For example, how could the fact that the Civil Rights Movement did not happen until after Booker T. Washington's death explain some aspects of how Washington views Huckleberry Finn?
Students will reread the two published critical essays they compared earlier, and they will make inferences that answer the central question of the unit: How do the historical and social realities students found in their cultural context research seem to influence critics' views of Huckleberry Finn?
Finally, students will try to identify key elements of their own cultural contexts, compare their cultural contexts with those of the critics, and demonstrate how these influences appear in their own critiques of the novel.
You might consider before the unit begins how you want students to provide assessable evidence that they have successfully completed steps four and five. If the unit culminates in an essay, consider developing and distributing a rubric for it as students are finishing their cultural context research or refer to the one provided here. You may also consider whether you want students to perform separate assessments of their inferences about published critics' cultural contexts and their own, or whether these two sets of inferences should be combined in one assessment.
Students may go on to use these skills to re-examine Mark Twain as a writer who is also a reader of history and culture—someone who, just as students have just done, examines how historical and social realities affect individuals. They can do this by examining materials that show the difference between the America of Twain's childhood, which heavily influenced the characters and plot of the novel, and the America of the 1880s, which heavily influenced in complex ways Twain's attitude toward the world of his childhood and the tone of his book. A good starting place for analyzing the changes in Twain's understanding of the world, particularly the roles of African-Americans in it, is Shelly Fisher Fishkin's essay "Teaching Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," part of the PBS website on Huckleberry Finn and linked to the Internet Public Library. While the essay is directed to teachers, it is accessible to sophisticated students who have juggled well this unit's overlapping lenses of their own views, critics' views, and the views seen through Huck's narrating perspective. Fishkin refers readers to some of Twain's later writings, which clarify the differences between the older Samuel Clemens' views and the young, fictional Huck Finn's views on race. This sophisticated exploration might help students navigate historical fiction by detecting the ideas of one era as they show up in a story about an earlier time period.
10-15 class periods