Thursday, January 6, 2011

Hucked :: The Trouble with Twain

Any time I read in a news report that "The blogs are on fire today with opinions on..." I usually zone out.  This is a defensive response since my wife hates it when I yell at the radio, and this isn't that kind of blog anyway... most of the time. 

But this time it was one of my favorite books at the center of the storm.

I grew up in Missouri, immersed in the legendary shadow of Mark Twain.  I spent a lot of time pretending to be Tom Sawyer (I found Tom more relatable than Huck)  so an incredible amount of my parent's and grandparents' twine and twigs were sacrificed to my adolescent experiments with raft building.  One of the reasons I focused on Tom rather than Huck was that I never quite knew what to do with the escaped slave narrative.  I knew what to do with "River Pirates", but not what to do with Jim.

I grew up knowing that the black kids were every bit as human as the white kids, so Huck's slowly-dawning revelation about that fact seemed a bit daft to me.  It's a mindset that I cannot fathom... but I knew people, all too many people, who had no trouble whatsoever thinking of dark-skinned people as less.

I wasn't going to comment on this because, let's be honest with ourselves, this is not the first time Huckleberry Finn has had its language whitewashed.  When was the last time you heard young Huck say "Nigger Jim" on the silver screen?  Why?  Because we don't say that anymore.  And to put those words in a young actor's mouth in our racially-charged culture would be anathema to our sensibilities.

And if you cared to look, there are a dozen "condensed" or "young reader's editions" of the book for sale in which that troubling racial epithet is suspiciously absent.  Why we're arguing about it this time is anyone's guess.  I suspect it's that the imprint putting it out is called "New South" just puts an unfortunate spin on the story with southern states holding events to celebrate their secession from the union.  Timing is everything, I guess.

And while the reasons for the Civil War was more-or-less an argument about state's rights, the "state right" at the center of the fight was undeniably the right to own people because they have a darker skin color than yours.

I'm not a sociologist and I'm not a Twain scholar.  I'll leave the socio-political wrangling over this mess to those as have the academic credentials to back up their arguments.  But my friends in the American Library Association tell me that Huck Finn is at or near the top of every list of books that have been challenged or banned and has been pretty much since it came out.  Maybe we can take some solace in the idea that the reasons for challenging Huck have (we are told) evolved from "This is too accurate about how we are now" to "This is too accurate about how we were."

That is progress of a sort, I suppose...

Unless, we're lying to ourselves.

Unless, as Salon said, this is viewed from the standpoint of America photoshopping the flaws out of its history like a magazine airbrushing the character out of an aging starlet's face. 

Wait... Did I just say that our turbulent racial history is akin to "character lines"?

Yes, and I think that's an apt description.  Every wrinkle on your face is the track of past moments of joy or anger or grief.  Just as every muscle showing in your torso is the record of hard hours at the gym, every blemish or bloat are the remnants of indulgence or negligence or sloth. To wave them away with the stroke of an editor's pen is to lie about who you really are and worst of all, to lie about the past that got you to where you are.

This is less about the excision of a word from a single book (as I've noted, it's not the first time) and indicative of something that's a resurgent trend in our books and classrooms.  When textbooks are being rewritten to make our founding fathers seem more pious than they were, or our forefathers seem more enlightened than they were, it's a lie.  And the most troubling part of that lie isn't the lie itself, but how it hides the progress we've made (or the ways we've regressed) since the incident we are sanitizing to fit a current ideological desire.

History is what it is.  It's what happened, not what we wish had happened.  It's about what our forerunners believed and taught and thought and how it impacted the way that they acted.  It's how we measure our progress from one state to another, from one mindset to the next, from the barbaric to the civilized and all too often, back again.  It is how we learn not to repeat mistakes past and what we point to when we have. And every time we put a coat of paint over the past in the interest of keeping people comfortable, something valuable is lost... the wisdom that comes with the lines on our collective face.  Wisdom that we will soon forget if we bury the lines under layers of airbrushing.

This is what we are doing with Huck Finn.  Lying to ourselves, to our children especially, about how we got from a place where we required a journey through cold, dark waters to arrive at the conclusion that that people with darker skin tones are just as human as we are to a point where we're uncomfortable admitting that we ever thought that they weren't.

And worst of all, it reminds us that we're not as far down that road as we would like to think.


  1. I'm all in favor of supporting and buying unexpurgated texts; I frequently buy Norton Critical Editions for that reason, so that I can explore changes that have been made in various editions of favorite literary works (which happens ALL THE TIME, they just aren't as publicized or as politically-charged as this instance). That said, I find these discussions about the bowdlerized Huck short on suggestions. I think I know you better, Scott, than to believe that you support censoring this editor's editorial choices. What, then? Let's offer concrete solutions rather than just hand-wringing. What is the root problem here? (cowardly school boards?) What are alternative solutions? ("n-----"?)

  2. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of my favorite stories. I relate to Huck- not in the taught prejudices he had to overcome- but in his character, to do what he thought was right even if he believed he'd go to Hell over it. And his background with his father, school, religion... I really relate to Huck in general.

    What are our prejudices today? Is it a Democrat on the raft with a Republican? An Evangelical Atheist with a Radical Fundamentalist of any given faith? Who are the people you think are idiots- they just don't get it- they are so far below where I am. And what would it take for you to realize they are your equals? Fully and equally human. And to have to have a strong enough sense of compassion and justice to not allow divisive thoughts keep you from being brothers- regardless of the social consequences? That's what this story says to me.

    Stories are forever applicable- humans haven't changed much since we started writing things down. And in a twisted way, I kind-of like when people try to ban books. It draws attention to those books- books that have stirred up strong emotions in people are likely very good stories to read- and more and more people know about these stories because of the attempt to ban it, and are more likely to read it themselves. I hope if I ever get a story published someone will try to ban it!

  3. Well, I think I pointed out in the piece that this was nothing new. The shelves are full of boiled-down and diluted editions of every great work you care to name. And Huck has long been sanded down and varnished into just another cute protagonist so many times (especially by Hollywood) that I'm frankly a bit surprised that this small-press offering is making such a furor. Where was the backlash the last hundred or so times?

    Asking a censor to knock it off is not censorship. It's the opposite. But is this editor really a censor? Can producing a press run of Bowdlerized texts really be censorship? Or is the fault passed along to whatever school board member or curriculum member or parent who allows this into their schools?

    The latter, I think.

    The existence of the neutered version is not the crime. Using to supplant the real version is the crime.

    I guess Bowdlerized texts don't kill literature, teachers who prefer them to the real thing kill literature.

    I've often said that I support the right of people to protest the inclusion or exclusion of items from their libraries and curricula. It is our right and our responsibility to speak out in praise or horror when we see something praiseworthy or horrific.

    The dicey bit comes later, and does not become censorship until someone in power says THIS SHALL NOT BE READ and cuts off access to some portion of the population however small. This means that teachers, school boards, librarians, curriculum committees, et al are in the point of friction between the rock and the hard place. They should get combat pay for this reason alone if not other (and there are many others as we both know).

    The discussion that this prompted is a healthy one, I think. One of the few moments of internet tempests making waves that build rather than destroy. If nothing else, we've at long last recommenced the cultural debate about bowdlerizing our history. At least until the next shiny thing comes along to distract us...

  4. I am Huck I grew up in a very conservative, using the term loosely, somewhat Christian and EXTREMELY! racist family, in a community that reflected it. I heard and used the n word and every other racial epithet you can think of. I have tried very hard to leave that past behind me. I have had to all but leave my family behind me as well. I've tried to revel in their positives and not let the negatives bother me, but in the end we can't escape our past whether it is properly written down or not. bowdlerizing literature (or bastardising it) is quite simply like trying to stick our proverbial heads in the sand. The past is behind us therefore the only place it can bite us is in the end and believe you me it will. Over and over and over to infinity. The truth is the planet is peopled with far too many folks who don't care about the messages that our books impart or misinterpret them, or like one brother of mine don't bother to read. Or like most of the rest of my family refuse to read or listen to anything that challenges their point of view. So really the whole damm thing just frustrates me no end. I look around me and see what is wrong and what is right and just don't understand how we can get others to see it, unless they want to. Hopefully those of us that try to do right will one day win out and people won't feel the need to rewrite history.


Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).