Bill Murray Gives a Delightful Reading of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (1996)

George Bernard Shaw once called Mark Twain “the Amer­i­can Voltaire,” and like the inspired French satirist, Twain seems to have some­thing to say to every age, from his own to ours. But if Twain is Voltaire, to whom do we com­pare Bill Mur­ray? Only pos­ter­i­ty can prop­er­ly assess Murray’s con­sid­er­able impact on our cul­ture, but his cur­rent role as everyone’s favorite pleas­ant sur­prise will sure­ly fig­ure large­ly in his his­tor­i­cal por­trait. Of Murray’s many ran­dom acts of kind­ness—which include “pop­ping in on ran­dom karaoke nights, or doing dish­es at oth­er people’s house par­ties, or crash­ing wed­ding pho­to shoots”—he has also tak­en to sur­pris­ing us with read­ings from Amer­i­can lit­er­ary greats: from Cole Porter, to Wal­lace Stevens, to Emi­ly Dick­in­son.

Just above see Mur­ray read an excerpt from Amer­i­can great Mark Twain’s The Adven­tures of Huck­le­ber­ry Finn. Murray’s appear­ance at the 1996 Barnes & Noble event appar­ent­ly came as a sur­prise to the audience—and to him­self. The excerpt he reads might also sur­prise many read­ers of Twain’s clas­sic, who prob­a­bly won’t find it in their copies of the nov­el. These pas­sages were orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Life on the Mis­sis­sip­pi but reinserted—“correctly, I guess,” Mur­ray shrugs—into Huck Finn in Ran­dom House’s 1996 repub­li­ca­tion of the nov­el, mar­ket­ed as “the only com­pre­hen­sive edi­tion.” (Read a pub­li­ca­tion his­to­ry and sum­ma­ry of the changes in this brief, unsym­pa­thet­ic review of the re-edit­ed text.)

1996 was an inter­est­ing year for Twain’s nov­el. Long at the cen­ter of debates over racial sen­si­tiv­i­ty in pub­lic edu­ca­tion, and banned many times over, the book fig­ured promi­nent­ly that year in a tense but fruit­ful meet­ing between par­ents and teach­ers in Cher­ry Hill, New Jer­sey. These dis­cus­sions pro­duced a new cur­ric­u­lar approach that PBS out­lines in its teach­ing guide “Huck Finn in Con­text,” which offers a vari­ety of respons­es to the thorny ped­a­gogy of “the ‘n’ word,” racial stereo­typ­ing, and read­ing satire. Beyond the issue of deroga­to­ry lan­guage, there also arose that year a pugna­cious chal­lenge to the book’s place in the Amer­i­can lit­er­ary canon from nov­el­ist Jane Smi­ley. Smiley’s polemic prompt­ed a lengthy rebut­tal in The New York Times from Twain schol­ar Justin Kaplan.

Revis­it­ing these debates reminds us of just how much we can take for grant­ed a lit­er­ary work’s social and cul­tur­al val­ue. Smi­ley reminds us of the breadth of Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture by women writ­ers that was pushed aside by crit­ics to give male writ­ers like Twain, Melville, and Poe pride of place. The var­i­ous con­tro­ver­sies sur­round­ing the novel’s place in the class­room should remind us—as Toni Mor­ri­son has explained in depth—that racial­ized lan­guage does not strike all read­ers equal­ly, and that this is a prob­lem to be dis­cussed open­ly, not ignored or banned out of sight. And Murray’s excel­lent dra­mat­ic read­ing of these re-insert­ed pas­sages should remind us, over all, of the first rea­son we care about Huck Finn—not because of its polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness or incor­rect­ness, but because of its rich­ness of char­ac­ter and dia­logue.

After Murray’s read­ing above, New York Times writer Brent Sta­ples intro­duces a dis­tin­guished pan­el of Shel­by Foote, William Sty­ron, Roy Blount, Jr., and Justin Kaplan. The five go on to dis­cuss the “lit­er­ary and his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance” of the nov­el, con­fronting the con­tro­ver­sies head-on. I think it’s a shame Jane Smi­ley wasn’t invit­ed, or chose not to appear. In any case, you might be tempt­ed to bolt after Bill Mur­ray, but stick around for the writ­ers. You won’t be dis­ap­point­ed.

You can find copies of Huck Finn in our Free eBooks and Free Audio Books col­lec­tions.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Bill Mur­ray Reads Great Poet­ry by Bil­ly Collins, Cole Porter, and Sarah Man­gu­so

Mark Twain Drafts the Ulti­mate Let­ter of Com­plaint (1905)

Mark Twain Wrote the First Book Ever Writ­ten With a Type­writer

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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