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Thursday, Oct. 8, 2015

You can either take it or leave it alone

Friday, January 7, 2011

"The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" is one of my favorite books of all time. As a literature major, I don't say that lightly. It's on a short list that includes "Old Man and the Sea," "Catch 22," "Cat's Cradle" and "Where the Red Fern Grows" of reasons my life centers on the written word.

As such, I've always been a staunch defender of Mark Twain's masterpiece and those who object to its so-called "racist" language. The problem is that the "n-word" appears 219 times in the book.

My argument has always been read what the book says, not how it says it. The problem is, Twain was only trying to be accurate. In 1850s Missouri, no one would have said "negro" or "slave" or "African American." They would have used the much more objectionable cousin of these words.

Does this make the use of the word correct? Absolutely not. It is an abhorrent word that -- as far as I'm concerned -- could be struck from the English language. The use in Twain's book, however, is consistent with the time and place of the book.

However, a recent edition of the book edited by Twain scholar Alan Gribben replaces the n-word with "slave" all 219 times.

My argument has been, though, read the book -- the whole book -- before passing judgment. What you find is the journey of a young man, Huck, from a naive boy to someone who ultimately can make his own decisions, in spite of what those around him say or do.

Take a quick look at the adults Huck comes across in his adventures. He pretty quickly sees that while Widow Douglas and Miss Watson are good intentioned, they are pretty much hypocrites. What about Huck's father? He's an abusive drunk who's probably one of the worst people you will find in American literature.

On his trip down the river, Huck finds the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons, who seem like nice enough people, except they can't seem to stop shooting one another. He also meets the "Duke and Dauphin," a pair of con men who will take advantage of anyone and everyone.

What Huck is ultimately left with is Jim. While he may still refer to Jim as a "slave," he also sees that Jim is really the only adult who has consistently treated him well. Jim has an absolute heart of gold. He and Huck take care of each other along the way, and Jim patiently puts up with the ridiculous scheming of Huck and Tom Sawyer in the last several chapters.

The conclusion Huck seems to reach is that he doesn't care about the norms of society, he has a respect for Jim that he lacks for many other people.

It's not a racist book; it's just inhabited by racist people in a racist society. It's a big difference to be noted.

In pondering this matter and reading about it over the last several days, my opinion has changed only slightly. The one change is that I never really had to consider the effect being made to read the book would have on African-American teenagers. I went to a rural school where everyone looked like everyone else. The word wasn't one that could be applied to any of us, so it didn't really hurt. We just understood it was wrong.

With that in mind, I don't know if the book should be required reading for all high school students the way it once was. It may just hit a little too close to home for some.

On the other hand, though, it should be in every high school library in America, ready to be checked out by those who choose to read it. It is a classic of American literature.

And about this newly edited version of the book? It actually frightens me. Right or wrong, the n-word was part of Twain's original artistic vision. When you start to edit art, particularly 101 years after the artist's death, you begin down a slippery slope.

Anyone can say, "It's just one word," but it's more than that. This is a piece of historical fiction. If we start trying to deny that people were (and still are) racist, we enter dangerous territory. It's sort of like trying to change history at that point.

By trying to change "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," aren't we also denying the lessons it can still teach us?

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I totally agree. If you have never read the book before, a first reading with the new format would leave you wanting. If you never understand how the rest of the world views Jim, then Huck's view of him becomes less important.

-- Posted by Clovertucky on Sat, Jan 8, 2011, at 10:37 AM

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