Twain's 'Huck Finn' transcends its time and prejudice

The newly sanitized edition comes at a time when the power of words is making news in Arizona and Pakistan. But worrying about Twain's use of one word risks overlooking what was truly powerful in the man and his writing.

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Mark Twain, having breakfast in Olympia on Aug. 11, 1895

The newly sanitized edition comes at a time when the power of words is making news in Arizona and Pakistan. But worrying about Twain's use of one word risks overlooking what was truly powerful in the man and his writing.

Words and their consequences have been very much in the spotlight lately, generating as much buzz — at least in some circles — as the electronic gadgetry we can buy to convey them. Not least, Alan Gribben, an English professor at Auburn, has gotten a lot of publicity for bowdlerizing Huckeleberry Finn so that schools will keep — or put — it on their reading lists.

School districts don't want to offend anyone. Mark Twain has Huck refer to his companion Jim with “the N word,” aka “nigger.” This offends or may offend some potential readers. So some school districts leave Huckleberry Finn — arguably the most important book in American literature — off their reading lists. If you want American schools to assign and American kids to read that particular classic, why not remove the offending words?

Why not, indeed? One thinks of the American major in Vietnam who allegedly said: "It became necessary to destroy the town (in order) to save it.” If nobody will read a great book unexpurgated, do you expurgate it so that people will read a lesser version? Why not just give the kids a condensed version? How about Shakespeare in modern slang? Where does it end?

Predictably, most writers who have commented publicly on the new, sanitized Huckleberry Finn seem to think it's a terrible idea. They point out, among other things, that it's considered OK for some people to use the word, but not for others. Rappers use “the N word” all the time. This is hardly news. "Mr. Gribben has said he worried that the N-word had resulted in the novel falling off reading lists,” Michiko Kakutani explains in The New York Times, “and that he thought his edition would be welcomed by schoolteachers and university instructors who wanted to spare 'the reader from a racial slur that never seems to lose its vitriol.' Never mind that today 'nigger' is used by many rappers, who have reclaimed the word from its ugly past.” (Whatever you think of the rappers, it is certainly ironic that while many schools make their reading lists blandly inoffensive, the general media environment that students encounter out of school has become more offensive than ever.)

Whether or not the rappers have actually “reclaimed” the word will get you an argument. “How hardy is the weed of self-loathing,” the (African American) columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr., asks, “that many black people rationalize and justify its use, even now? . . ."

"I mean,” Pitts wonders, “has the black girl Gribben mentions (who was so offended by the language that she 'loathed' Huckleberry Finn) never heard of Chris Rock or Snoop Dogg?”

The whole point of the book is that Huck realizes Jim isn't any less of a person than the white people who regard him as property. Twain treats the character of Jim with respect, and Huck winds up respecting him, too. “Instead of doing a gotcha search on Twain’s 'Huckleberry Finn,' I recommend that its critics read it,” Ishmael Reed has written. “They will find that Twain’s Jim has more depth than the parade of black male characters that one finds in recent movies, theater and literature, who are little more than lethal props. Jim is self sufficient, capable of fending for himself amidst dire circumstances, cares about his family, is religious and has goals. He is one of the few characters in the book with any kind of integrity.”

Pitts writes that “Huckleberry Finn is a funny, subversive story about a runaway white boy who comes to locate the humanity in a runaway black man and, in the process, vindicates his own. It has always, until now, been regarded as a timeless tale. But that was before America became an intellectual backwater."

Some think it's pretty presumptuous of an obscure academic to rewrite, even marginally, a book that is generally considered a masterpiece of American literature. Reed suggests the “fact that a critic has taken to tampering with Twain’s great work is another sign that the atavistic philistinism that has taken hold of our politics and culture has found a place in academia.”

Kakutani describes “the narcissistic contemporary belief that art should be inoffensive and accessible; that books, plays, and poetry from other times and places should somehow be made to conform to today’s democratic ideals. It’s like the politically correct efforts in the ’80s to exile great authors like Conrad and Melville from the canon because their work does not feature enough women or projects colonialist attitudes.”

She doesn't hold much with that approach. Instead, “(a)uthors’ original texts should be sacrosanct intellectual property, whether a book is a classic or not. Tampering with a writer’s words underscores both editors’ extraordinary hubris and a cavalier attitude embraced by more and more people in this day of mash-ups, sampling and digital books — the attitude that all texts are fungible, that readers are entitled to alter as they please, that the very idea of authorship is old-fashioned.”

The N word accurately reflects the way people talked at the time. Pitts suggests, “it is never a good idea to sugarcoat the past. The past is what it is, immutable and nonnegotiable. Even a cursory glance at the historical record will show that Twain’s use of the reprehensible word was an accurate reflection of that era. So it would be more useful to have any new edition offer students context and challenge them to ask hard questions: Why did Twain choose that word? What kind of country must this have been that it was so ubiquitous?”

The U.S. House of Representatives has been careful to avoid that kind of embarassing historical question. The House began its current session by reading the Constitution aloud — not a bad idea, although one wonders about paying 435 people rather handsomely to spend a day doing it. But the House arguably did a little sugarcoating of its own. Critics have noted that the reading omitted those parts of the original document that even Tea Party Congressmen recognize are no longer politically acceptable — chiefly those that recognized and accomodated slavery. (For purposes of representation, a slave — who couldn't vote — would be counted as three-fifths of a person. The importation of slaves would have to end — in 20 years.)

Of course, those clauses are no longer part of the Constitution, and one can make a good case for reading the document as it is, not as it was.

One can also argue that if the House leadership realizes the Constitution has changed for the better, it should acknowledge that the document evolves over time, and that therefore, conservatives shouldn't simply evoke the Founders' view of the world as an immutable holy vision.

The New York Times editorialized: "Members of the House might have thought they were bringing the Constitution alive by reading it aloud. . . . But they made a crucial error by excising its history. When they chose to deliberately drop the sections that became obsolete or offensive, and which were later amended, they missed a chance to demonstrate that this document is not nailed to the door of the past. It remains vital precisely because it can be reimagined.”

During that bit of congressional theatrics, Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords read the First Amendment — you know, the part about freedom of speech. Two days later, at a routine outdoor meeting with Tucson constituents, she was shot in the head. Twenty-two-year-old Jared Loughner allegedly shot her and 18 other people with a Glock automatic pistol. (Arizona sales of Glocks have subsequently doubled.) Liberal commentators have suggested that the rantings of right-wing talk show hosts and Tea Party politicians — just the sort of odious rhetoric that the First Amendment protects — inspired Loughner. One senses a certain quality of I-told-you-so: They said bad things and look, bad things happened. They should have known better. The rest of us did. Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik certainly suggested that right-wing rhetoric had helped inspire the violence. Dupnik talked about people who "try to inflame the public 24 hours a day" with "rhetoric about hatred, mistrust, paranoia of how government operates.”

Columnist David Brooks wrote in The New York Times that “the early coverage and commentary of the Tucson massacre” suggested that “Loughner unleashed his rampage because he was incited by the violent rhetoric of the Tea Party, the anti-immigrant movement and Sarah Palin. Mainstream news organizations linked the attack to an offensive target map issued by Sarah Palin’s political action committee. The Huffington Post erupted, with former Senator Gary Hart flatly stating that the killings were the result of angry political rhetoric. Keith Olbermann demanded a Palin repudiation and the founder of the Daily Kos wrote on Twitter: 'Mission Accomplished, Sarah Palin.' Others argued that the killing was fostered by a political climate of hate.

“These accusations . . . were made,” Brooks observed, “despite the fact that there was, and is, no evidence that Loughner was part of these movements or a consumer of their literature. They were made despite the fact that the link between political rhetoric and actual violence is extremely murky. They were vicious charges made by people who claimed to be criticizing viciousness.”

Some Democratic members of Congress shared that attitude. "Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo. and Rep. Debbie Wassermann Schultz, D-Fla., (argued) that intemperate rhetoric from politicians and from news media personalities might encourage some individuals to act violently,” Tom Curry reported on Msnbc.  “Durbin, the Democratic whip in the Senate, cited imagery of crosshairs on political opponents and Sarah Palin's combative rallying cry, 'Don't retreat; reload.'  'These sorts of things, I think, invite the kind of toxic rhetoric that can lead unstable people to believe this is an acceptable response,' Durbin said Sunday on CNN's State of the Union.”

In Pakistan, some people know just how to deal with those who say unacceptable things: Kill them. Blasphemy is punishable by death.  And opposing the death penalty for blasphemy turns out to be punishable by death, too. The governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was gunned down by one of his own bodyguards because he advocated punishing blasphemy by something less. The shocking thing for most people has been less the assassination itself than the widespread expressions of public approval for it

Even politicians and law enforcement officers seem to think it was a good idea, or are at least unwilling to say it was a bad one. "As the 26-year-old assassin, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, appeared before a magistrate in Islamabad, to be charged with murder and terrorism, he was showered by hundreds of supporters with rose petals and garlands,” Carlotta Gall reported in The New York Times. “Moderate religious leaders refused to condemn the assassination, and some hard-line religious leaders appeared obliquely to condone the attack.” Some of the same lawyers who took to the streets in 2007 and 2008 to support the rule of law have taken to the streets again to support the assassain. Indeed, they were among the people showering him with rose petals.

Clearly, if we want Pakistan to unite to fight religious extremism in the near future, we're barking up the wrong tree. At best, we can hope that one group of religious extremists will turn against another for our benefit. (The Times' reporting makes it clear that not all Pakistanis back violent fundamentalism, but that support for it seems generational: The younger the people, the less committed many of them are to a secular society.) Taking advantage from divisions among extremists makes good realpolitik — if we can pull it off — but it's hard to dress up as idealism.

Compared to the turmoil over blasphemy in Pakistan, the debate over re-writing Mark Twain seems pretty tame. But there are similarities. And there are conceptual links. Neuroscience has found that the hormone oxytocin triggers acts of trust and kindness. But it only has that affect if the other person is perceived as being a member of one's own group, part of the clan, one of us. If the person is perceived as being one of them, in the lab, the hormone triggers acts of ethnic bias; in the real world, reading between the lines, it may help provide a chemical basis for ethnic cleansing.

“Oxytocin turns out to be the hormone of the clan, not of universal brotherhood,” Nicholas Wade writes in the Times. “Psychologists trying to specify its role have now concluded it is the agent of ethnocentrism.” Words, of course, help to mark someone as us or them. Despite the words, Huck winds up treating Jim as one of us. How inspiring. How rare.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.