Who's Afraid of Huckleberry Finn?
by John Liechty
by John Liechty
The 19 January Los Angeles Times ran an article entitled ‘Teacher Wants to Expel Huck Finn,' with the tag line: "An African-American is about to be inaugurated as president. That leaves John Foley to wonder whether students should still read books that depict black men as ignorant, inarticulate, and uneducated." Teacher Foley is quoted as having "a lot of passion" for Huckleberry Finn. His complaint is that every year the book "seems a tougher sell to the kids." That is likely as valid as the complaint that every year, nourishment seems a "tougher sell" to kids. Yet there remain miscreants among us who persist in believing our children's taste for molded nuggets of salt, sugar, and fat does not eliminate a duty to induce them to eat food. Such miscreants tend as well to believe that our children should read books — real books.
Huckleberry Finn usually offends those prone to offense for either "religious" or "racial" reasons. Foley's main gripe involves the latter. Twain's novel hosts a character called Nigger Jim, and according to Foley, now that "Barack Obama is president-elect of the United States, novels that use the ‘N-word' repeatedly need to go." (Note the English teacher's dubious placement of the adverb.) Poor Mark Twain. If he'd only had the prescience to call his character N-word Jim, the tender buds of America could carry on reading. That Twain may have named his character in accordance with a reality he was endeavoring to depict… That Twain's character may appear "ignorant, inarticulate, and uneducated" because Twain legitimately chose to depict a man who appeared ignorant, inarticulate, and uneducated… (Incidentally, Jim is uneducated but no one who's understood Huck Finn would dare call him ignorant or inarticulate.)… That Twain may have said: "Our Civil War was a blot on our history, but not as great a blot as the buying and selling of Negro souls…" But the obvious is not good enough for Foley, who grieves that many of his students "never get past the demeaning word Huck uses to refer to his friend."
"This is particularly true, of course, of African American students," Foley wrote in a comment to a Seattle paper. "With few exceptions, all the black students in my classes have appeared very uncomfortable when I've discussed these matters…" Allow me to wonder a moment at Foley's language. Consider first the use of "of course." Why do Foley's African American students, "of course," appear "very uncomfortable?" Here it must be revealed that Foley is an educationist of pallor, or whatever the appropriate expression is for a white teacher, and that he works at a "largely white suburban high school." Might not Foley's "of course" indicate a certain bias? Might not much of the "discomfort" stem from Foley himself? Might there be reason to find more racist attitude in Foley's few comments than in the thousands of pages of intelligent English Mark Twain left to the world? As for intelligent English, what to make of Foley's phrase: "With few exceptions, all the black students in my class…?" If there were "few exceptions," then in fact there were some, yet all the blacks in Foley's class seemed (of course) uncomfortable… Well, to echo Mr. Twain, the logic is one too many on me. I worry for Foley, as I worry for anyone in the teaching profession, myself included, that he may be ignorant, inarticulate, and educated.
But let's leave Foley to his syllabus for now and turn to Mark Twain, who may or may not have said: "I have never let my schooling interfere with my education." One of the first things to consider about Twain is that he was an equal opportunity offender. He had often witty, sometimes angry, always unvarnished things to say about Government, Science, Religion, Education, Greed, Piety, War, Language… Among those who might have found occasion to take offense (but who far more often found occasion to laugh) were the rich, poor, middle-class, Mormons, Jews, Christians, Hindus, Muslims, beggars, plutocrats, pundits, whites, blacks, conservatives, liberals, Germans, Irish, English, Native Americans, prudes, politicians, patriots, cannibals, missionaries, imperialists, children, lawyers, Sunday school teachers, educators, policemen, yokels, sophisticates, soldiers… Hardly anyone got off the hook, least of all Twain himself.
If Mark Twain was racist, it was not a specific race but the human race itself he professed to be down on. "Often it seems such a pity Noah and his party did not miss the boat," he observed. Or: "Concerning the difference between man and the jackass, some observers hold that there isn't any. But this wrongs the jackass." Twain didn't actually believe or intend such comments to be offensive, for as he himself admitted: "There isn't any way to libel the human race." What burned Twain up was that smug, back-slapping, self-congratulatory nonsense we all submit to at one time or another regarding our perceived superiority — our superior intelligence, superior morality, superior species, superior education, superior genes, superior religion, superior flag. Twain simply wanted to remind us of our place. Not some of us — all of us. Not some races or religions or nationalities — all of them.
Mark Twain was a master storyteller, essayist, parodist, humorist, and fabulist. His range of interest in the people and world around him was remarkable. His depictions of human nature may be unparalleled in American fiction. Twain is sometimes pegged a sour old cynic, often as not by those who haven't read him. Yet for all his fulminating, ("Damn these human beings; if I had invented them I would go hide my head in a bag.") those who read Twain generally conclude that he enjoyed human beings immensely.
On one count I am sympathetic to Teacher Foley's frustration with Huck Finn — Foley is weary of dealing with parents who come in to complain. But I can not be sympathetic to his proposed solution — to replace Huckleberry Finn with Lonesome Dove. Lonesome Dove is a fine book and Larry McMurtry a fine writer, but one does not scrap one of the greatest novels in American literature because it causes discomfort. That Huck Finn remains a discomfiting book is in fact one of the highest compliments that can be paid it.
In his inauguration speech, Barack Obama noted that America is a young country but that the time has come to put away childish things. The new President has proven himself able to discuss race and religion in an intelligent, forthright, adult fashion. I suspect our high school students, whatever their race or religion, can manage that too. I suspect they are grown up enough to handle Huckleberry Finn, N-word and all, provided the same can be said for their parents and teachers.
January 24, 2009
John Liechty [send him mail] currently teaches in Muscat, Oman.
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