The Huckleberry Finn rant, pt.1

[This is part 1 of a two-part entry.  The conclusion appears in the subsequent post.]

NewSouth Books, a Montgomery, Alabama-based publisher, will in mid-February issue a one-volume edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885).  The new edition replaces what NewSouth’s web site calls “two hurtful epithets” in those novels with the words “slave” and “half-blood,” in order to “help the works find new readers”—thereby removing the precise textual element that makes Huckleberry Finn, in particular, so essential an American book in the first place.

Huckleberry Finn is one of the most troubling and disconcerting novels in American literature.  It began in Mark Twain’s initial conception as an adventure story, a sequel to the well-reviewed (though not very successful) Tom Sawyer, with which it shares a geographical and historical setting as well as a handful of characters.  Unlike Tom Sawyer, which was written in the third-person voice, Huckleberry Finn was to be told in the first-person voice of a fairly literate, but abysmally ignorant, young boy from the American South.  Tom’s story, that is, is told by an omniscient narrator whose voice provides context, irony, or commentary as needed.  Huck’s story, by contrast, was to be told in Huck’s own voice.

That single difference creates a pervasive conflict, one that the book itself does not resolve in any very reassuring way.  That problem permeates the novel and makes it, I think, one of the very few American books that accurately depict the pathology (and, perhaps optimistically, the barest initial enlightenment) of the racist mind. 

The problem is this.  Huck Finn’s story is to be told in Huck’s own words.  And Huckleberry Finn—the character, not the novel—is a racist. 

Huck has only a minimal formal education, but he is a shrewd observer of the ways in which people act, which are frequently at odds with what they profess to believe.  Through that observation, and from his position as an impoverished white orphan who’s recently been taken in by a middle-class white family, he’s learned a very comprehensive lesson as regards race, a lesson taught to him by the genteel middle-class Widow Douglas as much as by his violent, abusive, low-class father.  Huck has been consistently told, and therefore unquestioningly believes, that whites are superior to blacks, that slavery is in complete accordance with the will of God, and that white superiority is a basic precept of the Christian faith he hears professed all around him. 

Huck begins the book a racist, and, despite those teachers and readers who might wish it otherwise, he ends the book a racist.  Sort of.  But I’ll come to that later.

As a result of letting such a narrator tell the story in his own words, Twain has Huckleberry Finn write or speak the word “nigger” approximately 200  times over the course of the novel.  Dr. Alan Gribben, who teaches in the English and Philosophy departments at Auburn University, edited NewSouth’s upcoming release, which substitutes the word “slave” for that racist term.  In his introduction, Dr. Gribben offers a detailed and, to me, thoroughly convincing account of his own personal challenges as a teacher, throughout many years of discussing both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in group settings:

For nearly forty years [writes Dr. Gribben] I have led college classes, bookstore forums, and library reading groups in detailed discussions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in California, Texas, New York, and Alabama, and I always recoiled from uttering the racial slurs spoken by numerous characters, including Tom and Huck.  I invariably substituted the word “slave” for Twain’s ubiquitous n-word whenever I read any passages aloud. Students and audience members seemed to prefer this expedient, and I could detect a visible sense of relief each time, as though a nagging problem with the text had been addressed.

I’ve also taught Huckleberry Finn for many years, though not as many as Dr. Gribben, and always in the context of a college classroom.  I can relate to his sense of discomfort, particularly as a white teacher discussing a book that contains the word “nigger” on very nearly every page.

But however much we might wish the word away, however relieved we might be did we not have to deal with its presence in the book, however comforted we might be as teachers and students if we could ignore the fact that Huck Finn uses that word to refer even to the runaway slave Jim, whom he comes to love and who loves him back… the simple fact is that Huckleberry Finn is a book that is absolutely intended to make its readers uncomfortable, and any attempt to make it more palatable does significant damage to what Huckleberry Finn reveals to American readers about our own culture.

As Dr. Gribben points out, both Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer frequently end up on “banned” or “unsuitable” lists in public school curricula.  This is, according to his introduction, the primary reason NewSouth is bringing out its new edition: to help bring both books to wider audiences by removing their most controversial elements. 

Tom Sawyer I have always found a harder book to defend in this regard than Huckleberry Finn, as it is primarily a generically formulaic “boy’s adventure” story—a well-plotted adventure story, but not one that raises much in the way of complicated or thought-provoking questions for the reader, on its own merits.  There is a serious tactical mistake, I think, inherent in publishing both books in one volume.  Because these are two very different, in fact radically different books. 

Tom Sawyer is a boy’s adventure—one told using racist language, but at its heart, a novel that follows the conventions of what’s come to be called “young adult literature.”  Huckleberry Finn is, most emphatically, not “young adult literature.”  Huckleberry Finn is a dark, disturbing, relentlessly uncomfortable dissection of a racism endemic though not peculiar to American history, on every page of which we are forced to acknowledge that Huck’s genuine personal respect and admiration for “Miss Watson’s runaway slave Jim” are not, finally, enough to make him fully comprehend how the pathology of cultural and institutional racism has poisoned his mind.  He begins that process, but he does not complete it.

Twain, as Gribben states, did originally intend Huck Finn as a sequel to Tom Sawyer.  But those plans were abandoned midway through the writing process, as Twain discovered that he could not write this story, in this voice, and tell that sort of innocuous, generically coherent story.

To take a small but telling example: When Huck Finn first appears in Tom Sawyer, he is depicted as the sort of kid that every young male child in town envied—he has no parents, no fixed home, runs around in old clothes that are little more than rags, smokes, talks dirty, and essentially does anything he pleases without fear of parental discipline: “In a word,” writes Twain’s omniscient narrator, “everything that goes to make life precious, that boy had.” 

Feeling stifled by the solid values and comforts of their homes, churches, and schools, all the young boys in town including Tom Sawyer admire and envy Huck.  But readers understand the irony in the sentence above.  Huck is the very emblem of Poor White Trash, a filthy boy of low-class Irish heritage whose degenerate father is the town drunk.  His life is hard, unpleasant.  Readers understand that.  The kids don’t.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by contrast, is told in Huck’s own voice, and therefore with no opportunity for ironic or blindly romantic distancing of his life’s harshness.  In his own novel, Huck describes surviving by eating garbage, fakes his own death to avoid being killed by his own father (following a harrowing scene in which Huck is locked inside a remote cabin with Pap, who shrieks and raves for hours as he undergoes alcohol withdrawal, and on whom Huck holds a gun for self-protection even after he passes out), and at various points directly witnesses murder (including the murder of a child his own age), robbery, fraud, vicious mob justice, and larceny.  Huck is a hard kid.  But he inhabits a compensatorially vicious world.  And part of that viciousness inheres in the novel’s deployment of racist language.

[continued in next post]

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One Response to The Huckleberry Finn rant, pt.1

  1. Carl Weis says:

    Damn Eric:
    You have an amazing talent. Not fair to utilize the tools of an author to make your literary reviews suspenseful and entertaining, not to mention thought provoking !

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