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January 7, 2011 8:43 pm
“That is just the way with some people,” says Huckleberry Finn in Mark Twain’s eponymous novel, published in 1885. “They get down on a thing when they don’t know nothing about it.” Huck was talking about the Widow Douglas’s disapproval of smoking. But his point applies more generally to the legions of American parents and political activists who have lately sought, with considerable success, to ban or censor Twain’s work.
Huckleberry Finn is not the world’s greatest novel, but it is the most American of the world’s great novels. It follows Huck on a rafting voyage down the Mississippi with Jim, a runaway slave. Along the way, with subtlety, wryness and explosive humour, Twain deflates the ideology of racism as Americans lived it in the 19th century. For US adolescents, the book has been an irreplaceable bridge from juvenile into adult reading. Its page-turning picaresque draws the reader towards deep questions of the human condition. Unfortunately for present-day sensibilities, it does so in the dialect of Missouri in the 1840s. Twain’s characters use the word “nigger” at least 200 times.
Over the last half century, Huck Finn has therefore awakened the sleeping giant of American prudery, which today stalks racial questions as it once stalked sexual ones. New York City scrapped the book for elementary and junior high students as early as 1957. New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois, condemned it in 1976 as “degrading and destructive to black humanity”. It has been assailed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In the heyday of political correctness in the 1990s, it ranked fifth on the American Library Association’s list of “Frequently Challenged Books”, four notches above Heather Has Two Mommies. It has fallen to number 14 only because it has been scratched from so many curriculums.
Until a few days ago, the case for sanitising Twain tended to be made by those who despise the author, rather than those who love him. But now Alan Gribben, a prominent Twain scholar at Auburn University in Alabama, has announced he will bring out an edition of the book that changes “nigger” to “slave” and (rather pointlessly) “Injun” to “Indian”. Teachers do not feel they can teach Huckleberry Finn any more, Mr Gribben says. “For a single word to form a barrier,” he told Publisher’s Weekly, “it seems such an unnecessary state of affairs.” Mr Gribben has been accused of bowdlerisation.
There is no serious way to defend him against the charge. He is doing just what Thomas Bowdler did in 1807 when he produced a Family Shakespeare with the dirty parts left out. Let us not dismiss Bowdler as a mere life-hating obscurantist, though. Elevating moral instruction above the imparting of knowledge is a defensible choice, as long as one realises that that is what one is doing. Given the moral climate in parts of late-Georgian England, certain children would either read a censored Shakespeare or no Shakespeare at all.
So it is with Huck Finn. The very thing that makes the book so attractive to teach – its mix of juvenile plots and adult themes – also makes it especially challenging. Twelve-year-olds “identify” with a character their own age who is dealing with social questions for which they lack context. Attempts to provide that context have not been successful. Birdville, Texas, faced protests four years ago when a 17-year-old was made uncomfortable not by Huckleberry Finn itself but by a pre-teaching session meant to sensitise students to the word “nigger”. There is a case, then, for a bowdlerised Twain in the classroom. But it applies only in the classroom, and the book that results will not be Huckleberry Finn – it will be Huckleberry Finn for Younger Readers.
American discussions of race are as constrained by taboos as discussions of sex were in Bowdler’s day. In one respect, they have also broken free of logic. Racist books are not used in any American classrooms, so fury tends to be directed at books that merely mention race. These are invariably anti-racist books: not just Huckleberry Finn but even Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a sentimental anti-slavery tract. A high-school English teacher from Washington state urged a couple of years ago, in a much discussed article, that Harper Lee’s novel of racial injustice, To Kill a Mockingbird, be cut from the curriculum. He explained: “Atticus Finch, the heroic attorney in Lee’s novel, tells his daughter not to use the N-word because it’s ‘common’. That might’ve been an enlightened attitude for a Southerner during the Great Depression, but it is hopelessly dated now.”
So it is not just racism that has no place in the politicised schoolroom. Neither does anti-racism, if the person expressing it falls short of moral perfection. The upshot is that it is hard to have a serious discussion of race in an American classroom at all. Whom is that supposed to serve? Twain, striking a Tolstoyan note, described his novel as defending “a sound heart versus the ill-trained conscience”. The Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy once wrote of Twain: “By putting nigger in white characters’ mouths, the author is not branding blacks, but rather branding the whites.” It is an excellent point. Cutting the word “nigger” out of Huckleberry Finn is generally urged as a means of protecting the self-esteem of black students. In some cases it may achieve that aim. But one thing it does even more reliably is to protect the moral hauteur of whites, shielding them from the evidence that their ancestors were ever that way and the suggestion that they themselves ever could be.
The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard
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