Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Huck Finn : Still Causing Trouble

The recent dust-up over Alan Gribben's new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would probably seem pretty familiar to Mark Twain. Right from the book's publication in 1885, teachers, readers, writers, and other sentries of literature have continuously contested it; for each generation, Huck Finn provides a cultural Rorschach test. Early it was charges of obscenity; Twain's representation of Huck and his world was considered fit only for the "slum." A couple of decades later, Huck himself came under attack: the renegade boy was seen as an unfit example for other children. By the mid-1990s, the cultural wars came for Huck. This time, it was Twain's use of racialized and racist language under fire. In 1995, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was the most challenged book in America's public libraries. At this zenith of political correctness, racist language, no matter the context or deployment, was anathema.

In this historical moment, our literary politics are different. Cultural uses of "nigger," from NWA to The Wire, are discomfitingly accepted as a necessary evil of artistic representation. The logic is "If the word exists in our parole, then we have to deal with it in our art." This middle ground acknowledges the reality of American racism without requiring that all representations of racism must be expunged from the artistic record.

The problem with this attitude, though, is that "acknowledging American racism" is a messy and tortured affair. Those with experience teaching or discussing literature with overtly racist language know what often happens; classes and book groups become discussions about the word rather than the work. This problem is at the heart of Professor Gribben's approach of substituting "nigger" with "slave" so that Huck Finn as novel can be investigated.

Reactions to his workaround have been widely derided, with a fervor that is as curious as it is well-meaning. One group of Gribben's critics wants to protect Twain; they see this emendation as a mortal blow to the integrity of Twain's artistic vision and the internal logic of the novel. Though laudable, this literary idealism forgets, as all idealism does, the practical considerations of literature as a living entity whose existence is under constant evaluation. The fact of the matter, as Gribben notes, is that Huck Finn's influence in the American literary canon is fading, precisely because of our contemporary anxiety about the word "nigger."

My own teaching experience suggests that he is right. Just a few days ago, during a class on Henri Bergson's The Comic in General, I saw the pedagogically destructive force of historical racism. At one point Bergson asks "Why do we laugh at a negro?" As one might imagine, my liberal, 21st Century students, finely attuned to the fault lines of American racial politics, latched onto this line and our class became an hour-long discussion of racist language. This, of course, is a conversation worth having. It is not, however, the only conversation worth having. Their collective anxiety about the word overwhelmed whatever else may have been of interest in the text. My class on comedic theory became a class on American racism, just as Gribben's classes on Huck Finn have become classes on American racism. This has happened in the wider stream of American literature: our cultural knowledge of Huck Finn is that it is a book about race, but few readers can readily say what else it is about.

The other main group of Gribben’s critics accuses him of cultural white-washing, of trying to cover up the ugly reality of white oppression. This line of thinking would have more credence if Gribben were somehow trying to hide what he's doing, and his introduction to the new edition makes it perfectly clear what has been changed from the original text. These charges, such as Ishmael Reed's, don't really seem aware of the complicated nature of the project.

In The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani's articulates this position:
"To censor or redact books on school reading lists is a form of denial: shutting the door on harsh historical realities — whitewashing them or pretending they do not exist."

The brandishing of "censorship" ignores the realities of the problem. People, notably students, are not reading Huck Finn, and its centrality to the American canon is in jeopardy. Should we let this play out in the name of literary idealism? My sense is that Gribben would rather teach the unadulterated text, but the sensibilities of today's students and readers make that nearly impossible. His primary concern is the future-history of Huck Finn and would rather live with a living, imperfect text than a forgotten, pure one.

Given the choice, I think I would hazard the original text, but I also respect Gribben's position. Either way, it may well be that in the long arc of history,  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn becomes another victim of the very American racism that spawned it.

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  1. Great post.

    When I heard about this I believe Mark Twain's soul laughed out loud... "What a squeamish bunch of damned fools!" And then settled down again to go about his current business of moving on...

    It's a crime that it was allowed to happen at all...yet I'm not surprised at all that it has...Only in America.

  2. This issue brings up an interesting point about the longevity of literature. If we view reading as a transactional process, wherein both the reader and the text are changed through their interaction, then a case could be made that if the modern readers of Huck Finn are reacting to the racial overtones, then it has in fact become a novel about race. While it may be considered a seminal work of American literature according to traditional definitions, does that mean that it should in fact remain central to the canon in perpetuity? If the focus of instruction about Huck Finn were to shift to an examination of race (and I would say class) in 19th century America, are there other novels that could adequately stand in for the other themes present in HF that could be taught instead? I'm not saying that I have answers to these questions, mind you, just posing them...

  3. I think the discussions on racism are necessary, and leaving the text in it's original state brings up valuable discussion.

    If your topic is not centred around this, not to be rude, it is a teacher's job to keep the students on track. If teachers cannot do this, I would suggest using another book for the topic they wish to discuss.

    Censorship is a slippery slope, and the lines are blurry. If we start with the word 'nigger', this soon can become a removal of all references to religion, suicide, etc. Pretty soon, the original thoughts behind the artists works are gone and we are left with a censored, watered down society.

  4. Dear Ape, underlying your very interesting commentary, I detect two premises, both of which strike me as rather weak. (1) That great canonical texts should be taught. Although I agree with you in general, it need not apply to every great book, of which there are too many to read in a class, in a seminar, in a week, in a month, or even in a year and in the passing of many, many years. If Huck Finn can’t be productively studied in class, teach something else. The souls of white folk and the souls of black folk, and the color of other folks in between, won’t be irremediably damaged by not appreciating the literary art of Huck Finn. It’s not for everybody. (2) That the redacted text will eliminate a hang up or a mental blockage. But just as the mind easily passes from the “n-word” to “nigger,” or from “f-me” to “fuck me,” or from the “c-word” to “cunt,” or from “$#@!” to “shit” or “fuck,” so too will the minds of students pass from “slave” to “nigger.” Every student will know that nigger writhes behind its mask.


  5. Laura-
    I'm not sure Twain would be so glib; he cared enough about his literary legacy to go to extraordinary lengths to distance his autobiography from his own life.

    I agree that literature is a transactional process. This also means, though, that there is no "in fact"; the definitions of what a novel are about are decided by readers and discussants. The problem is that there really isn't anything close to equivalent to HF, let alone more racially palatable.

    No one is arguing that the discussion about racism isn't necessary. The question is should it be the primary or exclusive discussion. And asking a teacher to manage the collective social anxiety students have about race is probably asking too much. Also, as I mentioned to Heather, there is no substitute for Huck Finn; it is possibly THE seminal work of American literature.

    I agree: canonical doesn't mean mandatory. Though if you are teaching a survey of American literature, leaving out HUCK FINN is, to my mind, a worse censure than changing one word. As Hemingway said, it is very much the riverhead for what came after in American letters. As for the second point, I have to disagree. I actually think the sight/sound of "nigger" is so repulsive that it forecloses the possibility of critical engagement in many readers. I've been thinking of it this way: the best way to see a solar eclipse is not to stare at it, lest it blind you. Your best vantage is through the shadow that provides enough distance so that you can actually see what is happening.

  6. Your post is a calm and deliberate assessment of the most recent brouhaha, but Gribben's solution still doesn't sit well with me. I speak as a teacher who has grappled with Huck in the high school classroom many times, with diverse classes, from the mostly white, to the mostly non-white. The problem I have with Gribben's solution is that *slave* is not a synonym for the expurgated epithet. My most honest conversations in the classroom have been with students of color, talking openly about racial issues, including the use of the epithet, and the depiction of African American characters in the literature we read together. In my experience, it is white readers who are most discomfited by the use of the epithet. Except, of course, for those unsavory folks who seize on the opportunity to use the *nword* again and again and again. After much thought and much reading, I still don't have a settled answer to the question. But I do see your point about racism or racially charged language becoming the only conversation, when there is so much more to discuss in a text.

  7. Biblio-
    "Slave" is of course not a synonym for "nigger"; if it were, there would be no controversy.

    My experience likewise suggests that white students exhibit this most visible discomfort with the word, but students of color also have a great deal more experience dealing with overt racism, so I'm not sure that appearance are indicative.

  8. As my students would say, true that.

  9. This is the age of white washing and blinders. Tom Sawyer would've tricked several someones into doing the job for him.

    To redact a text to suit the sensibilities of people who pretend to be sensitive to a plight or different time in their own history is just wrong on so many levels. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has weathered many storms of controversy and will doubtless continue to wage them as long as there are teachers willing to teach the text as is and not bow down to the politically correct masses determined to censor and rewrite history. Has it not always been so? It is like taking Henry Millers Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn and removing all the F-bombs and sexual situations, which would gut the text. We have to be able to teach our children, and to learn for ourselves, how to see the truth without hiding the facts and move on.

    I understand Gribben's position. He wants to preserve a classic for the future. How can he do so without first having gutted and changed Twain's intent in writing the book? What's next, another furor over the sexual images in Song of Solomon and outlawing it or taking any novel with objectionable language and situations and characters and remodeling it to make it fit the sanitized version of what a book should be? It's the first step down a very slippery slope. It's time to give up political correctness and face reality with all its hard angles and harsh language and accept that this happened and was true.