Thursday, January 13, 2011

The word and the world

As you probably know, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been in the news, as a professor and publisher have joined to produce an expurgated text of the novel in which the word slave replaces another word, 219 times. Three thoughts:

1. It’s been done before. In April 1963, the Philadelphia Board of Education removed Mark Twain’s novel from the city’s schools, substituting an adaptation with muted violence, simplified speech, and the elimination of “all derogatory references to Negroes.” And in 1984, middle-school administrator John H. Wallace published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Adapted, with that word and the word hell removed. I’ve seen no reference to these previous expurgations in news coverage.

2. Changing the word does little to change the categories that structure Huck Finn’s thinking, which are those of the world in which Huck has been raised. When, for instance, Jim bests Huck in an argument about whether it is natural for people to speak different languages, Huck explains that he chose not to continue the debate: “I see it warn’t no use wasting words — you can’t learn a [          ] to argue.” The joke is on Huck. You may fill in the blank with the less offensive noun of your choice, but no substitution changes Huck’s mind, which assumes (always) Jim’s inferiority.

3. None of which is to say that the language of Twain’s novel poses no complications or causes no pain. But the more urgent complications and pain of Huck Finn lie, I think, elsewhere: in Huck’s deformed conscience (he believes of course that in helping Jim he is doing wrong) and in Tom Sawyer and Huck’s absurd, dangerous, not-funny humiliation of Jim in Arkansas, a humiliation in which Jim is thoroughly complicit.

I’ve taught Adventures of Huckleberry Finn any number of times, and each time, I’ve resolved never to teach it again. (Thus far I’ve kept my resolution.) As a piece of American myth-making, as a meditation on the varieties of human freedom, Huck Finn is crucial. And there is no easy, uplifting lesson to take away from it. The image many readers have of the novel — Huck and Jim drifting along the Mississippi, just getting along with each other, just two people, free of an oppressive culture — is undercut by the novel itself, in which Huck and Jim drift further and further from the prospect of Jim’s freedom, their raft filled with the baggage of their culture.

[I learned years ago of previous expurgations from Peaches Henry’s essay “The Struggle for Tolerance: Race and Censorship in Huckleberry Finn”, in Satire or Evasion? Black Perspectives on Huckleberry Finn, ed. James S. Leonard, Thomas A. Tenney, and Thadious Davis (1992).]

comments: 2

Adair said...

I agree. I am not sure that removing "the word" will make this a less disturbing novel or easier to teach. For "the word" is just one of many unsettling aspects of this novel. It is not always even the issue of race. Huck's father, for instance. Surely that is one of the earliest depictions of child abuse in our literature. But then Huck's cruel teasing of Jim at various points in the novel, when Jim so obviously cares for and loves Huck---such moments are extremely painful to read. I literally have to put the book down at such moments and recover. I believe that Twain meant them to be searing, and that it is not just our "politically enlightened" perspective that makes Huck's behavior seem objectionable. They hurt at a fundamental, timeless human level. But even worse are the scenes where Tom Sawyer takes over--it is annoying and puzzling to see how much Huck follows him--and devises his over-elaborate plan to help Jim escape. The slow description of the absurd process and tools,which delays Jim's escape and almost sadistically ignores the urgency of it, fills me with an anxiety that I have only ever felt reading some of Kafka's stories. It is clear that it is a game for Tom, that neither he nor even Huck understand Jim's desperation. Jim's freedom is in the hands of two immature adolescents. It is horrifying. And again, I suspect that Twain meant it to be so. He is showing us a nightmare masquerading as a picaresque adventure. The removal of "the word" will not make Jim's plight any less of a nightmare.

Michael Leddy said...

What Adair said. :)

A student in a class once spoke of how it pained him to see Jim, a grown man, going along with Tom’s plotting. My only answer, and I think it’s a good one, is that as a character created by Mark Twain, Jim is not free. Here I’m distantly echoing Toni Morrison’s pages on the novel in Playing in the Dark.