By the end of this post, you will never again be able to look at this illustration with innocent eyes.
In 1885, one hundred twenty-six years ago today, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was finally published for the first time in the United States. The U.S. debut arrived two months after publication of the first Canadian and British editions, a curious arrangement that was not a calculated promotional strategy but rather the unfortunate consequence of sabotage. The first printing run was deemed unsuitable until a slyly added obscenity was removed. It was an oddly appropriate beginning for a novel that has been subject to censorship ever since.
This year has brought us news of a forthcoming edition of Huck Finn that aims to resolve the controversy that has kept an American classic off the shelves of many a school library. Newsouth Books, under the editorship of Auburn University English professor and Twain scholar Alan Gribben, is attempting to make Huck Finn palatable to a much broader audience by simply replacing the words nigger and injun with slave and indian. While the change may indeed spark a Twain renaissance among institutions that have hitherto banned the work, does making such an edition available make much sense?
Truly, if you are unconditionally offended by the word nigger to the extent that you cannot tolerate its presence in any context, then you do not want to read Huck Finn. The notorious slur peppers the novel as liberally as warn’t and hain’t; it is a piece of local dialect that is uttered carelessly and without fear of reprisal. Huck says it, the slave Jim says it, men and women alike say it, and nowhere does anyone suggest that it shouldn’t be said. The language of Huck Finn is partially a historical document of common speech, but it is also a window upon the racist thinking that passed for common sense in its day.
Consider the following passage, it which Huck invents a lie to explain his apparently delayed arrival to Aunt Sally:
“We blowed out a cylinder-head.”
“Good gracious! Anybody hurt?”
“No’m. Killed a nigger.”
“Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.”
Could the cold dehumanization of Africans in mid-19th Century America be summarized more succinctly or with greater clarity? All that you need to know in order to understand how it was possible for our country to embrace the evil institution of slavery can be inferred from this brief exchange. Mass cruelty is enabled when we perceive others as less than human.
That passage should sock the reader right between the eyes and provoke moral indignation. We are outraged that the characters could be so callous. While still outrageous, the impact is lessened by replacing nigger with slave. The word slave still carries some connotation of humanity, but the word nigger delivers the utter contempt with which much of white America regarded enslaved Africans.
Far more troubling than the language is Twain’s characterization of Jim and other slaves, who are portrayed as highly superstitious to a ridiculous degree. However, the same can be said of white characters in the novel as well. Huck, himself, possesses a high gullibility for various legends and folklore. The townspeople, too, maintain a practical faith in the bunk of the times, such as their conviction that a bread loaf bearing an inserted coin will float downriver and inevitably stop and hover if it passes over a submerged corpse.
What is perhaps most genuinely offensive about Huck Finn is the passivity of its slaves, who seem to accept their station as the way of the world, with little thought given to rebellion and no assertion of their humanity. Jim flees his master only when he believes that he is about to be sold and sent down south to New Orleans. Later, when he is captured and held as a fugitive, it is obvious that he could easily run away, yet he inexplicably remains a captive and submits himself to Tom Sawyer’s ludicrous preparations for escape.
This is a more substantial case for not using Huck Finn in the classroom, yet it is hardly sufficient. The novel was published in 1885, after all. Might we not expect it to be somewhat less enlightened than the attitudes of modern times? Huck Finn’s flaws have as much instructional potential as its strengths. We might ask students to consider the ways in which the narrative supports the case for universal civil rights, while at the same time we can urge them to discuss how it inadvertently subverts that aim.
Whatever its place in education, it is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as written by Mark Twain that should be either adopted or dismissed. The altered alternative is a weakened substitute. Like a luscious confection that has been re-engineered to eliminate calories but cannot compare to the taste of the original, we must ask if there is any point in bothering with it. Better to not read it at all, I’d say. Or better still, publish Twain’s text with an introductory essay that helps less mature readers digest what follows. If we fear that young readers will miss Twain’s condemnation of racism, then let us use supplementary texts to make it obvious to them.
With its unflinching exposure of the ugliness of American history, Huck Finn is social satire. We see the tragic folly of racism by witnessing the irrationality of its proponents. We are not meant to sympathize with those characters but to be repelled by their ignorance. Even Huck cannot fully overcome his prejudices. When he is doing the right thing and advancing justice, he does so under the conviction that he is doing wrong, for he is acting against the principles by which he was raised. Nevertheless, he combats the conventional wisdom of his time in the name of freedom, even at the cost of being an outcast.
That is not a bad thing for students to learn – if indeed they learn it.
Meanwhile, the controversy over Huck Finn continues, a century and a quarter after it first landed on U.S. bookshelves. Oh, and that obscenity that delayed our country’s first edition? An unidentified engraver modified a plate depicting Uncle Silas regarding Huck while Aunt Sally smiles mischievously and asks, “Who do you reckon it is?” Uncle Silas is recoiling slightly, his hips protruding forward. The malicious engraver saw fit to add – what else? – a phallus. Known to collectors as the “curved fly,” a rare first edition featuring the defacement recently sold for $30,000.
The moral of the story: tampering with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn may pay off handsomely some day. You might want to get a copy of Alan Gribben’s sanitized edition and hold on to it.