Monday, 28 February 2011

Rumours of Huck’s Demise

Recently a controversial new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which aims to render the novel less offensive to the modern reader by changing its language, was published by NewSouth. Most remarked upon is the fact that in each of the more than 200 instances that Twain used the word “nigger” it has been replaced with the word “slave”. Clearly Huckleberry Finn is an important book and one that should be available for children to read. But it is a complicated novel even for adults to comprehend, and one that has grown more problematic over time.

Jonathan Arac’s 'Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target’ tracks the changing perceptions of Huck Finn in both the popular and the critical imagination. His account of the work of many critics of American literature is simply damning. Most appalling is Arac’s observation that many critical accounts refer to the character Jim as “Nigger Jim”, despite the fact that this phrase is not used even once in the actual text. One critic, charged with writing an extensive re-evaulation of the American classic supposedly distanced from previous criticism, instead provided a reheated account whose lack of original thought was made embarrassingly evident by his use of this epithet. With undeniably racist attitudes entrenched even in what one would hope was an arena for progressive thinking, one questions both the motives for the outcry against the NewSouth edition and the possibility of Twain’s novel ever being examined in a disinterested fashion.

How old should children be when they are first introduced to Huckleberry Finn? The youth of Twain’s protagonist has meant that in the past it has been widely used in the classroom, but I would not be so keen to recommend it as a text that should be studied by everyone together at a certain age. Arac describes teachers defending their use of the text in the classroom, despite parents complaining that it had led to racist bullying. The NewSouth edition has prompted a rallying cry that the books should make its return to school libraries, although I remain unconvinced that there ever was a concerted effort to remove it, but more likely a gradual ceasing to its use as a class reader for obvious reasons of sensitivity.

Certainly the book has fallen out of favour; that happens to many pieces of writing. As part of my Masters’ dissertation I researched the changing fortunes of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, from the bringer of emancipation to peddler of toxic caricatures to quiet feminist heroine. As the angle at which we look at the past changes, texts appear differently. Toni Morrison’s Beloved might be the most frequently assigned novel in American college classrooms, but it too will wax and wane. I think that the changing perception of texts over time is fascinating, and I believe that this new edition speaks of America’s yet remaining unease over the concept of race.

Many of the reports on the new edition simply seek to shake up feelings of outrage that “American Classics” (for this read a fairly small collection of texts, all by white men, that people have read ever since American literature became an accepted field of study) are being sidelined for other works, with their implied lesser status. They suggest that it is only by being “sanitized” that Huckleberry Finn will be accepted by the PC police and make its return to schools. I think that it is important not to cover up what the novel was, and that this includes our desire to shield ourselves from the difficult truth that even a book written with the intention of championing freedom has such an uncomfortably compromised ending. Despite Huck’s compassion, Jim becomes the mere plaything of Tom Sawyer, and the fate of the family he leaves behind remains unspoken. Unless you address the ending, your reading will be revisionist even if you use the unexpurgated text.

The novel remains thought-provoking, and could prompt revelatory discussions for an exceptionally bright class with a thoughtful teacher. But I do not think that every child or indeed every teacher would be capable of this, and I do not see why Twain’s original language is necessary for children, who often read abridged and age-appropriate versions of novels or plays. Depressingly, Michiko Kakutani actually argues in the New York Times that the word “nigger” has been “reclaimed...from its ugly past“ by rappers, and that not teaching books like Huckleberry Finn “relieves teachers of the fundamental responsibility of putting such books in context — of helping students understand that [the novel] actually stands as a powerful indictment of slavery (with Nigger Jim its most noble character)”. This lazy, ill-considered and unreconstructed opinion would seem to prove me right in thinking that unless you are willing to commit your intellectual integrity and strive for a balanced, nuanced interpretation of Huckleberry Finn instead of a knee-jerk reaction one way or the other, it’s probably better not to read it. If a journalist for one of America’s most respected newspapers can’t do it, why are fourth-graders expected to?