Huck Finn and the intelligence of minors
When my daughter was 14 years old, she wrote a paper for school about an old controversy: complaints about the novel "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." It was so good, I persuaded her to submit it to the Colorado Libraries magazine -- and they accepted it. It came out in Fall, 2002, v28 no3.
Huck Finn is in the news again, most recently in Accomac VA, where, along with To Kill a Mockingbird, a parent is seeking to have the books entirely removed from a school. The incident reminded me of my daughter's essay - and I reprint it below because I think she nailed the issues. Maddy's essay, to me, is proof that of course minors should be allowed to read anything they can understand - and they understand plenty. They are certainly up to the challenge of reading American classics.
River Banksby Madeleine LaRue
If you squint your eyes, and look real close, you might see that shape out there on the river. See it? It's just on the horizon, and from here it looks like it don't have a care in the world. Just a-driftin' down the river, real quiet and peaceful-like, and now, as it's gettin' closer, you can tell it's a raft, and you can see two blurry figures. One is a young boy, and he don't think much of sivilization. No sir, he's happy on the river with his best friend, a runaway slave. But he don't look like a slave, you say. He's happy; they's both happy, and they's both free. And what better place to be free than on the river? But, wait... who's that there on the banks? Yeah, they's the ones. They's shoutin' at the boy, callin' him a racist; and at his friend, callin' him submissive; and callin' them both a bad example. And do you hear that snort of laughter? Well, sir, that's a Mister Mark Twain, and like the boy on the raft, he ain't one to care what other people think abouthim.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (whose title character is, of course, our hero on the raft, and which was written by our friend Mr. Mark Twain) was published in 1885 and instantly became a controversy. Most of the modern complaints (at least the ones you hear about) are of racism. Huck, Jim, Twain, and darn near everyone else in the book has been accused of being a racist at one point or another.
But before the racism dilemma, there were other obstacles. On March 5th, 1885, when Huck was still fresh off the presses, the Concord Public Library Committee decided "to exclude Mark Twain's latest book from the library. One member of the committee says that, while he does not wish to call it immoral, he thinks it contains but little humor, and that of a very coarse type. He regards it as the veriest trash. The librarian and the other members of this committee entertain similar views, characterizing it as rough, coarse and inelegant."
No mention of racism was made at all. In fact, for quite some time, the major objections to Huck were his "immorality" and his grammar. The book, the CPL Committee said, was "more suited to the slums than to intelligent respectable people."
Why all the fuss about grammar and not a peep about the "n-word"?
Yes, the "n-word," which (as defenders are endlessly reminded) appears 215 times in Huckleberry Finn. Michelle Malkin points out in her essay 'Hey, Hey! Ho, Ho! Huckleberry Finn Has Got to Go!" that "Censors ... are too busy counting Twain's words to understand them."
So what did he mean? That question can be answered a few ways. First, it was simply the way people talked in the nineteenth century. Twain's novels, like any other writer's, reflected the speech of his time. In Nat Hentoff's essay "Huck Finn Better Get Out of Town by Sundown," he quotes a schoolman who remained unnamed: "Good Lord, Twain spends three quarters of his book trying to make clear what a damnable word 'nigger' is, because it shows the whites who used it didn't see, didn't begin to understand the people they were talking about."
The people, or more specifically, one person, they were dealing with (to paraphrase Russell Baker) was the only gentlemen in the river of society's worst. The people Huck and Jim encounter on the raft are dishonorable, crude, arrogant, and ignorant... and hold the one kind soul-"Nigger Jim"-"beneath contempt" and in scorn.
While the king and duke rob, and the Grangerfords dispute, and Pap abuses, Jim cares for Huck, guards him all night, calls him honey, loves him as no one else would.
Jim is clearly the most honorable and most admirable character in the novel. He shows humanity where others show brutality, delivers kindness though he receives cruelty. And through all his suffering, he gently guides Huck to all his crucial decisions. When Huck realizes the nastiness of his trick on Jim on Jackson's Island, it's because Jim tells him so-"Dat truck is trash; en trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er dey fren's en makes 'em ashamed." And Huck is ashamed, so ashamed he apologizes to a slave-something otherwise unheard of. Jim forgives him.
And Huck's ultimate decision-to tear up his note to Miss Watson and declare "All right, then, I'll go to hell!"-is because of Jim's love. His epiphany is the realization that Jim's friendship is more important than society's ideals.
At least, that's how I see it. But black administrator John Wallace (who has been trying to get rid of Huck Finn in his school district) said, "You want to know why it's so important to get rid of this book? We are always lamenting that black students don't learn or progress as well as whites. Well, if you give them this crap about themselves, how are they going to feel good about themselves?" He also recalls studying Huck Finn when he was in school, and flinching every time the word "nigger" was mentioned.
The simple fact that "nigger" appears in the novel at all is often the only complaint. There have been cases when a new version of Huck was requested, nigger being replaced with "black" or "slave." Michelle Malkin offers the best answer to this request: "Whitewashing the word 'nigger' out of the book's dialogue would have played into the hands of those who prefer to sanitize history than [to] confront it."
Isn't it better to learn from history than to ignore it? Or will whitewashing it, like Tom Sawyer and his fence, make all the problems go away? Out of sight, out of mind.
Or not. For even as educators and parents demand the removal of the word "nigger" from Huckleberry Finn, the students (who, since they're the ones who will be reading the book, should have a say in the whole matter) have proven they're not as thick as some people think. "Do you think we're so dumb that we don't know the difference between a racist book and an anti-racist book?" That quote came from a Brooklyn eighth-grader interviewed by Nat Hentoff. An African American eighth-grader.
Obviously, though, many people feel they shouldn't have to read, hear, or see Huck Finn-or anything else that offends them.
Do people have a right not to be offended? Well, according to the Constitution... no. You have the right of free speech. . . but that means listening to what everyone else has to say, too, even if you disagree with it.
However, just for the sake of argument, let's say we do have that right not to hear. On that principle, since I can't run as fast as other people in my P.E. class, I shouldn't have to go to P.E. Seeing other people beating me in races offends me and is damaging to my self-esteem. And I couldn't draw to save my life, so I shouldn't be subjected to the humiliation of art class. Come to think of it, the probability of my being offended in school is so high, that I probably shouldn't go at all. See what kind of world that would be? A boring one, that's what. "If we try to banish works that some people feel are painful," says Jill Janows, "we'll be left with nothing to teach. The question is how to teach, and how to teach successfully-with respect for all students as well as for the works being taught."
Nat Hentoff agrees with her. He feels that, if there are ill feelings to the novel, the teacher's job is to channel those feelings to the issues Twain himself was against namely, slavery. J. Whyatt Mondesire makes a valid point when he says, "You're not going to learn anything by closing your eyes and not reading."
So there they go again, a boy and a slave, back down the river. It was a different river then, you know, 'cuz a river, well, it's like history, and history don't always flow the same way. And it sure don't always flow smooth. Yessir, you got lots of rapids in that river. But to that boy and that man down there, a few rapids don't matter. They've been there before.