Monday, January 10, 2011

Huck Finn and the State of Being Uncomfortable


Seeing Huckleberry Finn on the list of banned books is no new thing. It’s been controversial for years and years, thanks to it making us uncomfortable and forcing us to think a little. (Wouldn’t Mark Twain have a laugh about that? I expect he’d write another satire about the whole situation.)

The imminent publication of an “expunged” version that removes the n-word from the text has made me ponder the dilemma of educators who want to teach this book, but can’t. That word is, of course, one of parents’ major objections to the novel – along with the stereotyped portrayal of certain characters. The word and the stereotypes make readers uncomfortable, and for heaven’s sake, we wouldn’t want to be uncomfortable while reading a book about racism, would we?

Mark Twain meant for us to be uncomfortable. He deliberately dug around in the ugliest aspects of his society to stir up trouble, to make his readers questions themselves and their attitudes. Does the story still have value to us today? Some people think not, because slavery is gone and we should put it behind us and forget it ever happened. But expunging history is just another way to deny those deep-rooted prejudices (against race, religion, sexual-orientation, political views) that still afflict our country. If you have any doubt that erasing history promotes specific agendas, check out what the School Board of Texas has done to their history curriculum.

It might be easier to teach Huck Finn without that word, but if you water-down the racist elements of the story, then you’ve trivialized the moment when that 12-year-old boy from the lowest element of society has to decide between helping his friend Jim escape slavery and condemning himself to hell (which is what he’s been taught happens to abolitionists).

I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll GO to hell!”

It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming.


It seems to me, that moment was pretty important – and worth preserving.

11 comments:

  1. Thank you Dianne for saying exactly what I feel about this. I think it's the worst idea ever. Why not just have an abridged version? My mom was telling me about this last night and I was appalled - and I'll wager Mark Twain would be appalled, too.

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  2. I'm torn. I think this book is not being taught enough. I liked Rick Riordan's take on it--and he knows the professor who is doing the changes. I have seen some unintelligent arguments around this, but I love your points, and Rick's points. It's a tough issue. http://rickriordan.blogspot.com/2011/01/huck-finn-controversy.html

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  3. Rick Riordan does have a good take on the issue. Thanks for posting the link!

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  4. I totally agree. Watering it down takes the meaning out of it. I was a kid in the '80s when I read it and was not damaged in anyway. It actually gave me a broader view of a world I'd only heard tidbits about.

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  5. I completely agree with you. Well stated!

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  6. Amen. You said it well. Rick Riordan makes an elegant argument, but I don't buy it. It smacks of lowering the bar for classroom teachers. Is it harder to teach the unchanged version of Huckleberry Finn? Undoubtedly. But is taking the easy road really the example we want our teachers to set for our children?

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  7. It is a delicate matter isn't it? On one side, like you said, Twain wanted to stir up trouble and make his readers come face to face with the reality of slavery and prejudice. Some people might see this as not only a reminder of a dark past but also a justification of today's prejudices for those who choose not to see past it or look at the deeper meaning. ON the other side, our history is what it is and forgetting is not the answer. I don't think the original text should be changed in any way. But I do wish there was some way to create enlightened readers rather than offended readers. Unfortunately, not everyone on the earth is predisposed to enlightenment:(

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  8. I absolutely could not stand this book when I had to read it, but as much as I hate it, I hate censorship more.

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  9. Well said. We're raising an inept generation of kids if they and their parents can't abide being uncomfortable. If we can't discuss the word "nigger" in the context of when it was used, then I expect we'll also be ignoring the true nature of deaths in a war, incest and abuse, rape and other crimes of anger, and the connotations of other words are teens use so freely such a "ghetto bitch" and "mother fucker" without suffering a loss of comfort.

    If my daughter were in school, I would want her to learn about Mark Twain's book, not a book co-written by Twain and Alan Gribben. Gribben, as Riordan suggests, may be a great teacher. If he wants to write a book, good for him. But second guessing the master with his own edits is not censorship, it's worse: it's an audacious mutilation of a famous work for which the importance of comfort levels pales into insignificance. And to make matters worse, he Gribben chose an absurd synonym which has a totally different meaning. He could have used the word "Negro" which, at least, would have been accurate.

    Malcolm

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  10. Well said! In general I don't believe in censorship of such things, not even because of a possible discomfort, but because it's not fair to the author to change their message in any way. I would be piiiiissed if someone messed with my writing, even if it's trivial stuff.

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  11. hi miss dianne! wow thats one of my most favorite books that mom read to me when i was more younger. for me i didnt ever forget how it taught me more on caring bout whats just the right thing to do. i couldnt want not one word of that book to get changed up ever.
    ...hugs from lenny

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