The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, is one of the most disputed works in the history of the English language. Written in the post-Civil War nineteenth century, it caused a slew of attacks even then, although for very different reasons than those cited by its modern critics. Today, the most commonly raised complaints is that the book is racist and demeaning of African-Americans. When it was first published, critics objected to the fact that he uses the word "sweat" instead of "perspire;" but this worry seems largely to have passed. Yet, strangely, the attacks continue, and this "small book" has been banned in libraries and especially in schools throughout America. Even a simple examination of Twain's work, after all, will reveal that it is not only a critical piece of American literature, but that the most significant argument against it—that it is racist—is completely unfounded as well.
Huckleberry Finn was, in many ways, a first of its kind, and that reason, if no other, would seem to support its being taught in schools. The historical value of the work to the present day is nearly incalculable. In Twain's book we first have a truly candid glimpse of what life was like in the American South, prior to the Civil War. Critics of the work raise Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin on a pedestal as their first look at the South, but this is not a candid look at the time period. Stowe was writing from the view of an Abolitionist and African-American sympathizer. Therefore, her work, though brilliant, is not representative of the vast majority of Southern slaves. Modern stereotypes have labeled slaves as wearing rags, constantly beaten, forced to work from an hour before dawn to two after dark, and generally missing a body part or so. This is a romantic view of the slave. While slavery was, of course, inhumane and morally objectionable, most slaves were not as badly off as many people believe today. Mark Twain was the perfect writer to bring the truth of slavery into the light; as a boy, he owned slaves and accepted the institution, while in adulthood he found it morally repugnant. He experienced both sides of the issue, rather than only one. Ergo, Huck Finn shows us the first view of the slave that is not colored, if the unintentional pun may be forgiven, one way or the other. At least two other points prove that Huck Finn is a crucial piece: the use of vernacular in the South and its chronological placement.
Again, Twain's novel was the first to use the vernacular dialects of the South—or any other region for that matter. Today, it is nearly impossible to find a book which does not at some point abandon English spelling and grammar and plunge into the world of accent, dialect, and slang. While some may actually cite this as a negative point for Twain (at some points it must be admitted that too great a proliferation of strange spellings and unusual slang can become confusing), it cannot be denied that this was the precursor to the modern writing style. And, like many great things, it was scorned at the time of its invention—in fact, Twain's use of vernacular language is the primary reason the book was first banned. But despite all this, the work survived, and fathered today's vernacularism in writing.
The third and final reason for Huckleberry Finn to be taught in schools today is because, in many ways, it was the first work of truly American literature. Prior to Twain's masterpiece, all literature was British in style—little was written about daily life in the more rural and newer, fresher America, even by the few existing great American authors. Part of the problem, obviously, was that New England collected most of its "culture" from European societies. It was in the South and West, then, that an independent American culture was first established. Be that as it may, few writers can be thought of as "American" until after Twain wrote.