Monday, June 18, 2012

Huck, Revisited

One of my favorite books growing up was The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. My older sister checked it out of the library and first read it to me when I was seven, but I enjoyed the experience so much that I immediately sat down and reread it myself. Then our new lab puppy gnawed one end of the cover, so we had to buy the book from the library and it became ours. At the time it seemed a calamity (money was tight in those days, as my dad was in grad school) but it was really a gift. And since it’s one of the old 1930’s copies with the Norman Rockwell illustrations, I’m still glad to have it, chewed back cover and all.

I don’t remember how many times I read Huck Finn during my growing years, although I’ve no doubt the story had an enormous influence on me in ways I probably still don’t understand. But it had been a long time since I floated down the Mississippi with Huck and Jim, and so this past weekend I downloaded the book to my iPad and revisited my childhood.


What did I discover? That the book is even funnier than I remembered—or perhaps it’s simply funnier than I completely appreciated as a child. I was surprised by how clearly I recalled some segments, while others I remembered hardly at all. And as an author, I am in awe of Twain’s imagination and the way in which he wove together theme and character development and moral questioning.

I was also interested to discover that controversy has surrounded the book from the beginning; it provoked outrage back in 1884, when it was first published. Because it’s one of the first books written in the vernacular, critics called it rude and crude and morally objectionable. It was banned from libraries. Fast forward to our own era, and once again, Huck Finn frequently finds itself the focus of a storm of controversy, largely because the “n” word peppers the entire book and the character Jim is denigrated as stereotypical. Legions of earnest parents, educators, and moralists insist that children should not be allowed to read it. A new edition actually substituted “slave” for every “n” word in the book (even when referring to free men). At one point, CBS filmed it for television and left out Jim entirely!


Ironic, given that Huck Finn was written as a biting satire on racism and the moral hypocrisy that allowed it to flourish. The book is populated with a legion of nasty or foolish white people, from Huck’s “pap” and the “duke” and “king,” to the silly sisters who hand over their fortune to charlatans and multiple vicious mobs. Even Tom Sawyer is far from admirable; he cruelly (and dangerously) withholds the truth about Jim simply so he can have a grand “adventure”. The only really admirable adult in the entire book is Jim. Jim is brave, loyal, honest, trustworthy, and a good, loving father (in deliberate juxtaposition to Huck’s “pap”). Yes, he is superstitious, but so were most uneducated people in those days (see The Adventures of Tom Sawyer), and as the book progresses, his wisdom becomes more and more apparent to both Huck and the reader. I understand African-American frustration at being so often relegated to the role of wise mentor. But this is not a book about a black man aggressively fighting his way to freedom; it’s about a boy learning valuable lessons about human nature, racism, and hypocrisy as he grows to manhood. How is it a bad thing that his teacher is a black man?


As for the “n” word, how does an author write a book set in an era when the word was used by most of the population, and not use it? I can understand its offensiveness to people today; but does that mean that historical novelists must write anachronistic dialogue? Isn’t that rewriting history for the worst possible reasons? Why pretend that something offensive did not happen? Should we portray racist bigots as less offensive than they really were, simply to avoid using an historically accurate but vile word? How is it a good idea to throw away what could be learned by a thoughtful, sensitive, honest exploration of those times?

Your thoughts?


Charles Gramlich said...

The vast majority of criticism I've seen of Huck Finn has almost always seemed terribly misplaced to me. I tell people that I don't get satire and irony very well, but it's clear what this book was about and it still seems a wonderful indictment of certain types of prejudicial thinking.

cs harris said...

Charles, it didn't occur to me that many of the people complaining simply don't get that Twain has his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, since I "got" it at the age of 7. But I suspect you're right.

liz fenwick said...

Like you I read and reread the book many times growing up. At first I read it as an adventure story and then as I aged my understanding changed and I think that is one of the gifts of the book- it speaks on so many levels. It would be interesting to read it again now after a gap of more years than I care to think about....
I've missed out on all the criticism of the book...that sort of 'news' doesn't always travel


Essex said...

I was one of those people who didn't "get" Huck Finn when I first read it as a child. That book was one of my first exposures to racism and segregation in novels, so I was somewhat shocked at what I thought was a glorification of a rather shameful part of our history. It wasn't until later in life, when I read the book again, that I realized the satire behind the book. I guess that satire can be difficult to recognize - remember the reaction to Swift's "A Modest Proposal?" Even I got that one, though apparently many people who read it thought he was serious.

cs harris said...

Liz, I suspect that's what makes the greatest children's tales so enduring: they can be read at different levels as the child matures.

Essex, I think you're right, that if a child isn't exposed to much satire as a child, it can be hard to grasp at first. Since writing this post, I've been trying to remember when I first became aware of racism, but I can't. I distinctly remember trying to explain the concept to my younger daughter when we first moved to Louisiana, and how she simply could not grasp the concept of people judging other people by the color of their skin.

paz said...

As an military brat, I spent several years living in a town very close to St. Louis, and perhaps an hour away from Hannibal. My parents, Americans by choice, not birth, were tickled pink to be living in the midst of Mark Twain's world. They saw him as the quintessential American. I was familiar with most of Twain's work through children's editions. You can imagine my jaw dropping surprise when I finally read "the real" Huckleberry Finn in high school! I too became a fan, not of the comedic and romanticized version of Twain my parents knew, but of the deeply brave, critical and ironic Twain that spoke to some of my own experiences, that my parents couldn't always understand.

Katie said...

In general, people have a really hard time recognizing satire, and I've decided people don't really get Mark Twain. Another case in point is Mark Twain's essay, "Was the World Made for Man?", which is a satire of the earth being only 6,000 years old. Students in my class have consistently read it as supporting the idea rather than satirizing it.

cs harris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
cs harris said...

Paz, that's really interesting! And you're right, Twain was brave to write what he did, when he did.

Katie, I'm afraid you're right. I never realized before just how many people don't get satire. And the business about your students and that essay is just scary!

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