The Huckleberry Finn rant, pt.2

[This is part 2 of a two-part entry.  Part 1 appears in the preceding post.]

The two usual arguments one often hears regarding Huckleberry Finn’s language, particularly in the context of school board and reading list debates, run like so.  One side argues that the very appearance in the novel of such racist terms as Huck uses, and certainly the pervasiveness of those words, makes the novel itself a “racist book.”  The other side argues that the novel strives for realism in depicting the way people actually spoke during the mid-1800s (the time during which Huckleberry Finn is set), and for that reason it isn’t a “racist book,” just a realistic one.

Both arguments, I think, miss the mark.  At the heart of this binary either-or proposition is the question of whether or not Huckleberry Finn is something we might call a “racist book.”  I think that’s the wrong question to ask.  The question is, rather, whether Huck himself is racist.  And if so, how are we to understand his actions in the book, considered in the context of the language he uses to tell his own story?  In other words, how does the book encourage us to understand Huck’s racism itself?

That Huck is a racist—that he believes God created whites superior to blacks in intelligence, moral sense, and spiritual value—there can be no question.  He espouses such beliefs throughout the book, he grapples confusedly with the seeming contradiction of such beliefs when he encounters evidence to the contrary, and he never comes to a point where he understands Jim to be his racial equal.  What he does do, however, is something much more significant and powerful.

In the Widow Douglas, in Tom’s Aunt Polly—indeed, in virtually every genteel, middle-class context he encounters in the book—Huck sees white people treat black people as property, with contempt and with a thoroughgoing assumption of the lesser value of black lives when compared to white.  He also sees many of these same characters spout a message of charity, love, hospitality and acceptance—as we might say, the solid virtues of mainstream American society.  These characters give lip service to charity and grace, while treating the black characters in the book with indifference or violence.  They speak nicely, yet they behave foully.

Huck, by contrast, is the only character in the book to interact extensively with a black character—Jim, “Miss Watson’s runaway slave.”  In contrast to the middle-class whites in the novel, Huck speaks foully; despite the protests of readers who would claim that Huckleberry Finn simply represents the “way people talked” in the mid-1800s, “nigger” was not a word used in polite society in Huck’s (or Twain’s) day, and its deployment in public settings, heard by whites who considered themselves upstanding, moral people, would have suggested low manners and poor breeding in the person who used it. 

That’s precisely why Huck’s use of that term—indeed, his pervasive use of it—is so significant; that basic hypocrisy is at the heart of Twain’s choice to have Huck use it on nearly every page.  Huck has picked up on his use of the term from all levels of white society around him, from lower economic strata to the entrenched middle class.  He has heard it used everywhere, behind closed doors, in private settings, by whites of all economic and social backgrounds.  Because he doesn’t care at all about behaving in accordance with social niceties, he uses it thoughtlessly, since every white person he’s ever encountered, well-off or poor, has signaled to him that using it is perfectly natural and acceptable, so long as one doesn’t do so publicly.  The racism of the word doesn’t bother him, since he’s been taught from infancy that whites are superior to blacks.  Because he’s learned the fundamental lesson of racial superiority, it doesn’t bother him that he’s using a word other white people might make a show of disapproving.  He’s seen how black folk are treated.  He understands their true position in American life, whatever verbal niceties others might try to use to obscure it.

In this sense, Huck’s use of the word—his use of a word that, even in Twain’s day, was thought of as low and vulgar—represents the articulation of a racist consciousness fundamental to American life for hundreds of years, one that “polite society” suggests we shouldn’t acknowledge.  Huck speaks what we wish most to deny: The racism that permeated every level of American society, both public and institutional, for centuries, and which (considered on the historical timeline) we have only recently begun, as a culture, to try to dismantle.

Gribben’s and NewSouth’s replacement of that word with “slave” implies that Twain’s book doesn’t make a distinction between the two, that they are interchangeable, and that the replacement therefore doesn’t alter the text in any meaningful way.  In fact, Twain’s book does differentiate between the two.  The word “slave” appears on six occasions in Huckleberry Finn, and in every case, whether voiced by Huck or another character, that word is used in its very specific sense of denoting an “owned person”—that is, to refer to the indentured position foisted upon black folk in American life in Twain’s era.  Twain’s text understands, and consistently demonstrates, the difference between “slave” and “nigger” in Huck’s era.  The former refers to a position within an economic system of human exploitation, while the latter refers to black folk generally.

Huck’s casual use of the latter reveals that, no matter what his personal feelings may be towards Jim, he “understands” on a very basic level that Jim is his racial inferior.  The exceedingly problematic “happy ending” of Huckleberry Finn turns on Jim’s freedom; but the book’s racist vocabulary leaves the question of whether or not Huck still thinks of Jim as “a nigger” by the book’s end arguable.

The famous moment in Huckleberry Finn when Huck decides to “go to Hell” rather than turn Jim in is sometimes cited as the moment when Huck conquers his racism.  It is, importantly, no such thing.  Huck decides to try to help Jim escape, but not because he’s overcome racist thought.  He’s decided to do it because he’s decided that he is congenitally incapable of being good, upright, and moral—of being, in effect, a good American, a good white person, and a good Christian.  He believes, in making this decision, that he’s doing the wrong thing.  And Huck believes in Hell as an actual, physical reality.  In refusing to turn Jim in, he believes himself to be rejecting every standard by which a white person might be morally judged, in this world and in the next.  He commits to his immoral, anti-white, anti-Christian decision.  And he doesn’t look back.

This, I think, is a much more radical, subversive, and interesting moment than a simple “healing of a racist mind” might provide.  But it is not comforting.  The comforting book—the one NewSouth appears to want to publish—would be one that permitted us all to agree upon the evil of racist thought, and recognize the equality of black and white, while muting Twain’s depiction of the actual insidiousness and pervasive psychological effects of racism in the white mind.  That would be a “nice book.”  That would be a book that made the consoling argument that racism is an aberration in the American character, as opposed to a deeply embedded part of it.  That would be a book that allowed us to cheer for Huck as a redeemed character, by allowing him to stop using the word “nigger” thereafter.

However—and this is a point that I’ve not seen mentioned very often in discussions of the book—after that moment, Huck doesn’t refer to Jim, in his internal narrative, as “a nigger.”  He will use the word in other contexts, he will use it when referring to Jim in order to trick the Duke and the Dauphin; but he will never, in his own mind, simply refer to Jim by using that word.

It is a small change.  It is one so subtle that is has generally gone unnoticed in discussions of the novel.  Huck does not even, to all appearances, recognize it in himself.  But I find that detail, that change, a much more realistic depiction of how racist thought may begin to be dismantled than any sweeping, more comforting story would be able to afford.  Huck cannot recognize his love and admiration for Jim, and continue to refer to Jim in his own mind by that word.  He will continue to use the word when speaking to others, and when speaking about others.  But from that point forward, Huck cannot, within his own mind, use the words “nigger” and “Jim” as if they were interchangeable.  It is a minor change.  But at the same time, the suggestions it raises are staggering.

Huck has minimal formal education.  He is deeply ignorant.  His vocabulary and method of expression are crude at best.  And he is a racist, having grown up all his life around racists from every socioeconomic level.  And still, this barely literate kid, with no reinforcement or help from any other white folk around him, and with absolutely no vocabulary to understand his own racism—indeed, with no concept of what the word “racism” means or signifies—manages to free one small part of his brain from the assumption that this racist word naturally applies to this man, Jim.

It is a tiny, perhaps an infinitesimal measure of individual progress.  But in it, Twain seems to suggest that nothing—not impoverishment, not lack of education, not religious upbringing, not “family values,” not “the way I was raised”—nothing lets anyone off the hook.  Even without education, without reinforcement, Twain’s novel seems to suggest, one can begin to struggle free of the prejudices foisted upon us all from childhood, like a butterfly beginning the excruciatingly slow and difficult process of cutting itself free from the cocoon. 

Remove “that word” from the text, and that element is completely lost.

Still, it must be acknowledged that black and white readers come to Huckleberry Finn in fundamentally different ways.  No black reader has ever needed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to help him or her understand the specific end results of racist pathology.  Huckleberry Finn can educate white readers much more effectively than black readers, in this regard.  But in its depiction of the obliviously racist mind, the mind that itself does not recognize how deeply the concept of racial superiority has warped and confused it, the book is like nothing else in American literature. 

It is upsetting, it is frustrating, and it does not reassure us that the forward progress of history will alleviate the problem.  It is, in other words, complicated, conflicted, and uneasy.  It is meant to be, because it is meant to place the responsibility for progress on all of us, and it reminds us of that responsibility on every page.  An attempt to render The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn less upsetting robs us of its unique lesson regarding how racist pathology, passed from generation to generation in the home or in the world at large, poisons even the minds of children.  It is a lesson we sorely need, still, nearly 150 years removed from its initial publication.

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10 Responses to The Huckleberry Finn rant, pt.2

  1. Katie Loudin says:

    Wonderful, thought-provoking post. Huckleberry Finn, the original, is next on my reading list because of this. Thank you.

  2. Pamela says:

    You’re so smart. I believe I was twelve when I read this book, so my memory is a bit fuzzy. I do recall that I found it very difficult to read because of Twain’s insistent and purposeful use of the vernacular, but I would never alter a word of it. I’ve always understood that an author chooses each word for a reason, because of connotation as well as denotation, and it has always seemed that retroactively changing the language of a story would damage its integrity — and it somehow rings of patronizing, “we-know-what-Mr.-Twain-really-intended-to-say,” nonsense. I hate to learn that someone is trying to do that to this book, especially because it’s “uncomfortable.” Is it not discomfort that encourages the greatest growth and invention?

  3. Thought provoking. Staggeringly insightful. As I repeatedly tell my friends and colleagues-you have a gift. Thanks for posting this response. I’ll reread Huck Finn in the coming weeks.

  4. Kathleen says:

    Yes. Thank you. Yes.

  5. Dave K says:

    Though I agree with your analysis, I would submit that the argument depends on the audience. I think college students have the maturity to approach the book as it stands and see the historical and racial controversy it displays.

    However, for a high school and junior high crowd, I think that Mark Twain is a worthy historical writer to study without introducing uncomfortable words that children can reiterate in the halls. I picture too easily use of these specific words with the excuse that “the teacher said it” and creating additional rips in the already tenuous fabric of student relations.

    On a similar note, I think the N word should be removed by rap artists from their songs. Let’s get some consistency here. There was a rally here in PA awhile back with people carrying a coffin with a sign saying “Let’s bury the N word”.

    So from the practical perspective, I’d see a new edition to be put in high school libraries as a triumph for literature. I could be wrong but I seem to recall abridged versions existing already.

  6. Ginger says:

    Damn it. I was trying very hard not to think today. You, sir, make that impossible.

    Thanks anyway!

  7. @ Katie, Pam, Interactive Luddite (I know who you are, you tricksy bastard, you…), Kathleen, Ginger: Many thanks. Kudos from quality people make me happy like as if the sun were glowing in my tummy. :)

    @Dave: I’ve always found it weird that teachers assign _HF_ in junior high and high school, anyway–I think it’s a much more troubling book than people give it credit for. (I never encountered it until college, if you can believe that.)

    I have no idea how I’d handle the question of whether a book is “suitable” for those grades, were I a secondary ed. teacher. It seems like that issue would be so problematic, as development and maturity is wildly uneven among the students, and you’ve always got some parent, principal, board member or other breathing down your neck. God knows whether it’d be worth the hassle. Still, as I think about it, my favorite and most helpful teachers were the ones who took me aside and said, “You ought to read [X], though we can’t read it in class. You’d like it.” That’s how I fell across _A Clockwork Orange_, _The Stranger_, _The Catcher In The Rye_… all kinds of good books. But then, good teachers and good students always find ways to share the interesting stuff, it seems, regardless of curricular limitations.

    Thanks for commenting, all!

    • pktsqr says:

      I read Huck Finn as a kid (so, approximately the same age as the protagonist). I read it again during my junior year at a rural Indiana high school. Our teacher was not in the business of sparing our delicate sensibilities. In fact, in introducing the book, she led off with a vivid, gruesomely accurate historical description of what “tarring and feathering” could actually do to the human body.

      In other words, she treated us like people who could handle this troubling text. And, wouldn’t you know it, we managed to do so.

  8. Amie says:

    I actually encountered it twice in my secondary school career. The first time we read it was in eighth grade. I remember having a terrible time with the dialect at age 13, but I don’t recall any controversy over whether or not the book was racist. Then we read it again junior year of high school. It was a much easier read by then, but I sure don’t remember getting all of this from it. It would have been better in college, for me, but not everyone goes to college…

    We also read The Catcher in the Rye junior year of high school. I guess Randolph County schools are just that progressive.

    I intend on sharing this with my dad, the biggest Mark Twain fan I know. He’s been teaching this book to his special ed classes for years. I’m sure he uses an abridged version, so I’m guessing the word in question doesn’t appear.

  9. Pingback: The “N” Word | Breana Bayraktar

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