Huck Everlasting

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Sad to say, when it comes to recent misguided attempts to detoxify Huckleberry Finn, Kevin Drum misses the point entirely:

It’s simply no longer possible to assign a book to American high school kids that assaults them with the word nigger so relentlessly. As Twain scholar Alan Gribben, who led the bowdlerization effort, explained, “After a number of talks, I was sought out by local teachers, and to a person they said we would love to teach [Tom Sawyer] and Huckleberry Finn, but we feel we can’t do it anymore. In the new classroom, it’s really not acceptable.”

Given that choice, I guess I’d bowdlerize. After all, the original text will remain available, and teachers can explain the wording change to their classes if they want to. (Though even that’s probably difficult.) And frankly, I doubt that the power of the novel is compromised all that much for 17-year-olds by doing this. In fact, given the difference in the level of offensiveness of the word nigger in 2010 vs. 1884, it’s entirely possible that in 2010 the bowdlerized version more closely resembles the intended emotional impact of the book than the original version does. Twain may have meant to shock, but I don’t think he ever intended for the word to completely swamp the reader’s emotional reaction to the book. Today, though, that’s exactly what it does.

I left my psychic time machine at home, so I can’t really comment on Mark Twain’s original intent. But even if we exhumed and reanimated the bones of Samuel Clemens, and he insisted that he agreed with Alan Gribben entirely, I would still oppose bowdlerization. Original authorial intent is irrelevant. The text is the text is the text.

The fact that the text means wildly different things to different generations of readers is a feature, not a bug. More the point, it is completely unmanageable, unless we intend to rip the guts out of whatever classic literature we hand our children. Would Drum be willing to take the original Hamlet out of the classroom and replace it with a version that paraphrases all of Shakespeare’s poetry into modern idiom? Surely Shakespeare intended that his audience hear those words in whatever version of English to which they are most accustomed.

That hasn’t happened yet because we consider learning to grapple with Shakespearean language a valuable part of a child’s English education. Of course, you could argue that Huck Finn presents a different type of case: Shakespeare’s language is merely difficult, whereas Twain’s is ugly and hurtful. But that too is a feature, not a bug. As Jamelle Bouie says:

But erasing “nigger” from Huckleberry Finn—or ignoring our failures—doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t provide racial enlightenment, or justice, and it won’t shield anyone from the legacy of slavery and racial discrimination. All it does is feed the American aversion to history and reflection. Which is a shame. If there’s anything great about this country, it’s in our ability to account for and overcome our mistakes. Peddling whitewashed ignorance diminishes America as much as it does our intellect.

Teachers who respect the integrity of literature and want to assign Huckleberry Finn have two choices: they can let their students wrestle with the constant thudding reminders of America’s racist past, or they can assign something else. I know Finn is part of the high school canon these days, but there are other books out there just as worthy. Hell, it’s not even the only worthy Mark Twain book out there.

But those who do teach the book should do both its beauty and ugliness justice. A nation that can’t find it within itself to do that is a nation of cowards.

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