Huck revisited

July 08, 1992

Reports that Mark Twain based the narrator of "Huckleberry Finn" on a loquacious 10-year-old black boy, whom he described meeting nearly a decade before the book first appeared, are likely to prove small comfort to parents who object to the novel because of its demeaning racial stereotypes.

The black roots of "Huck Finn" were discovered by University of Texas Professor Shelley Fisher Fishkin, who traced the narrative style of Twain's masterpiece to a character sketch the author published in the New York Times Nov. 29, 1874. Scholars who have examined Ms. Fishkin's work suggest it could change the way the book is taught and revise the debate over multiculturalism that has pitted standard works by white authors like Twain against works from other cultures.

Perhaps. But black parents, especially, will still be more concerned about the effect of the book's repeated racial slurs on their children's self-esteem than its literary merit. "Huck Finn" should still be taught, of course, but with sensitivity and tact -- and not before impressionable youngsters have matured sufficiently to clearly distinguish between the world it describes and the one they inhabit.

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