Thursday, January 20, 2011

Out, Damned Huck Finn

One of the most persistently banned books in America is now to be released in an expurgated edition. Various words which, quite rightly, offend delicate sensibilities will be replaced with others less likely to offend. The objective of this edition, presided over by a passionate Mark Twain scholar, is to make the book more easily taught in schools.

This isn't an easy matter. The New Jersey Star-Ledger collects some online responses, including this very touching one by "Rose" at Feministing:

I am a product of a school system where Huck Finn was required reading. Having the book read out loud in my 8th grade classroom, where I was the only black person in my grade, was one of the most depressing experiences of my life. Classmates snickered and jeered as the n-word was repeated and repeated, some seemingly reveling in the fact that this exercise gave them the opportunity to use a word that a few of them had used against me.

Worse, the readings didn’t accompany any conversation about how the use of this term complicated the relationship between Jim and Huck.

Nonetheless, delicate though our sensibilities may be, we just can't get behind a bowdlerized Huckleberry, any more than we can a Shakespeare bowdlerized by Bowdler himself. ("Out, crimson spot" indeed!).

Whether or not "all modern literature comes" from this one book -- and it may, but it may not -- there is no question that Huckleberry Finn is among the most important novels of its time, and a critical text in the work of one of the few essential American writers. And it is, as Hemingway understood perfectly well, modern. It is not a work which comes from the dim mists of prehistory, laden with the prejudices of its time, which must simply be forgiven in order to appreciate its beauties.

On the contrary: the central beauty of Huckleberry Finn is its readiness to offend. It offends the racial assumptions of Americans, both Southern and Northern. And it uses offensive language to do that, sharpening the point in order to drive it home. This, for the most part, is why people get upset about it these days.

But even beyond race, it offends the easy Victorian sentimentalization of family -- Huck's father is a violent drunk, remember? It offends anybody who wants literature to be "nice," and it offends in particular anybody who makes the mistake of considering Huckleberry Finn as "children's literature." At one time or another, most of us are fooled by the fact that Huckleberry Finn includes characters borrowed from Tom Sawyer. But then we read a few chapters, and figure it out: this book is no more intended for children than Moby Dick or The Turn of the Screw. (The author himself made this point, and was much funnier than we will ever be.)

The pedagogical solution, then, is not to dumb the book down for the use of our wee widdle kiddie-widdies. The solution is to teach the book to adults. And, if a child does happen to stumble over it -- not in the classroom, from which it is exiled, but perhaps in the musty stack of paperbacks at a yard sale, alongside Macbeth and Billy Budd and Fahrenheit 451 -- snatch it from the little brat's hands at once, and lock it away until she is old enough to drink, smoke and vote.


Pastor Joelle said...

It's hard to read how a little African American girl feels in a classroom of snickering white kids when they read the n word (see I can't even write it)

Hey maybe the answer is for the teacher to DEAL WITH THE SNICKERING KIDS!

It's like in some places they've taken away Mothers and Fathers day to keep from making kids without mothers and fathers at home from feeling bad. Newsflash - they still don't have mothers and fathers at home and they STILL feel bad.

Father Anonymous said...

Yes -- deal with the snickering kids. I think even Rose knows that's the real problem. And a halfway competent teacher certainly knows, and plans ahead.