Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Oh! So That's What Twain Meant!

Lots of talk about a new edition of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn that eliminates that racist word that many of us don't even want to use in print.

While I like to thank that I am anti-censorship, pro-First Amendment, and all those things a writer should be, I have some discomfort regarding the language in Twain's works. Mainly this is because a good number of years ago I read an account of an African American father suing his local school to get The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn removed from his son's class curriculum. This man could recall what it was like to be a black child sitting in class while a white woman, representing society, stood at the front of the room reading "nigger" over and over again, all the time telling everyone what a great book Huckleberry Finn was. He felt demeaned, and he didn't want his son to have to go through the same experience.

I thought, Where the hell does someone like myself get off telling someone who has lived that that he shouldn't be offended, that he is wrong? I had a friend, a white, middle class woman from my book club, who said of a similar situation that the African American objecting to Huckleberry Finn was, indeed, wrong because the book was "a classic."

A classic? What kind of argument is that? Why should that make a black man recalling a painful experience from his childhood feel better? Why should he accept subjecting his child to a similar situation because the book involved is a classic?

The classic argument just doesn't hold any water with me.

I recall finding Huck Finn somewhat boring when I read it in high school. In fact, that's my major recollection of the book. When I reread it as an adult, I wasn't overwhelmed. And the ending! That nitwit Tom Sawyer comes into the picture at the end, and he and Huck are just dreadful to Jim--after all that fine, caring man had done for that boy.

I found that very difficult to take until about forty minutes ago when I read A High School English Teacher on Huck Finn's Bowdlerization. This interpretation makes all the sense in the world to me. I was right. The ending of the book is dreadful. But that's the point. No matter how good Jim was, Huck was still Huck.

So, thank you all you folks who have been discussing the most recent Twain upheaval. As a result, my understanding of Huckleberry Finn has deepened. I have a much better grasp of what Twain was doing with his use of the word nigger, too.

I still don't have the nerve, or perhaps arrogance, to tell black family members that they have no business being offended by it, though.


teacherninja said...

I think C.B. James had the best perspective on his blog. He said that the book has survived 100+ years of all kinds of nonsense. It'll probably survive this too. Thoughtful post, thanks.

Gail Gauthier said...

Oh, absolutely. Having this kind of thing come up every fifteen or twenty years probably helps keep the title in the public's mind, too. It's better to be talked about than forgotten.