Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 8, 2011

Me and Huck

You don’t know Huck, ‘lest you have read at least one of two books by Mr. Mark Twain called The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

I previously mentioned that the first book I downloaded to my Kindle was The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. When a couple of transcontinental flights provided me ten or so hours of uninterrupted reading time last Fall, I tried out the Kindle and read the book for, I think, the first time since high school (and, yes, I went to high school after 1884).

As I read it and rediscovered one of the great books of western literature, I started thinking about what I might write here, either to motivate my readers who, like me, hadn’t read the book in a long time, or those who had never read it. This enormously entertaining and wonderfully told story is something everyone who can should read. If you read it because it was assigned to you in high school or college, and you found it long and somewhat obtuse, I encourage you to try it as a grown-up, and see if you don’t think differently now. And if you’ve always thought of Huckleberry Finn as one of those hoary old chestnuts that take up space in attic of our literary history, I can promise you that you’ll be interested — if not captivated — by the charming Huck (the entire story is told in Huck’s words, with his very picturesque way of speaking), and I can also promise that you will laugh out loud a few times. All American readers already know that Mr. Twain’s humor is always lurking close around every corner, and it will jump out and grab you here, too.

However, reducing the blog output from five to 2 weekly posts has shoved this item down in the queue. Now, however, I have two timely reasons to talk about Huckleberry Finn. You’ll probably have heard that The Autobiography of Mark Twain was published late in 2010. With Mr. Twain’s stipulated 100 years having passed since his death, the terms of his will are fulfilled to allow its publication (only the first volume is currently printed). This book has been a runaway hit, and is selling as fast as they can print more copies. The fact that most of this material has, in fact, already been published in various forms — wheedled out of Twain’s daughter by a persistent editor — hasn’t stopped the Twain train in the least. So, Mark Twain is a big deal right now.

Secondly, Huckleberry Finn, itself, is an even bigger deal, and at this very moment. If you’ve been away from the news for a couple of weeks, you may not know that there’s a new edition of the book forthcoming, and that the editor has determined that it’s some of that “picturesque” language I referred to above that’s been keeping the book out of the hands of many people and off the shelves of some libraries. You probably know what I’m referring to, even if you haven’t been following the enormous brouhaha that’s surrounded this announcement. Huck (and other characters whose dialogue he relates) refer to African-Americans as niggers. It’s a shocking word. I’m sure I’ve never actually typed it out on a page in my life. The word gets used a lot in the novel, because Huck is telling the story of how he teams up with the runaway slave, Jim, and travels down the Mississippi, having adventures aplenty. The new publisher proposes to replace the 218 occurrences of that word in the book with the word “slave.”

I guarantee that if you take my advice and read (or reread) Huckleberry Finn, you’ll have a reaction to seeing that word in print. However, you’ll react just as strongly as you encounter first-hand through Huck’s eyes the attitudes of white people to black people (slave or freedmen). Keep in mind that Twain set his story some 40 or more years before he was writing in the 1880s. He was portraying a time before the Civil War when the world was different from his own present, and Huck’s language is one of his primary tools. Huck changes during the course of the story; he matures and learns about many kinds of people (a lot of them bad people, but a fair share of them are good people, too).

I want to say that I understand this notion that removing the word from Twain seems like a right and good idea to many, many people. I happen to disagree with them.

On a purely semantic basis, there is a difference between our offending word and “slave.” To Huck and to most of the white people in the book, any black-skinned person was the former. But not all black-skinned people were slaves. A black man or woman could have acquired their freedom, but the color of their skin made them “niggers.” It’s not a happy thought, but it represents the thinking of the people Twain was portraying. I believe that he was doing that for a reason, and changing his language dulls his purpose and introduces some silly ideas.

Eighty years before Twain was writing, there was a chap in England named Thomas Bowdler. He believed that Shakespeare, while great literature, was inappropriate for the tender minds of women and children, and that some careful editing could shield them from certain harsh and inappropriate words and ideas, thus making The  Bard something they could politely read. Bowdler and his sister undertook to do this. In Hamlet, Ophelia does not commit suicide; she’s the victim of an accidental drowning. Perhaps stupidest of all, Lady Macbeth does not say, “Out, damned spot,” but “Out, crimson spot,” which is just utterly idiotic not only in meaning but in scansion. Time and good sense have not been kind to Mr. and Ms. Bowdler, and the term to bowdlerize has become byword for the stupid censoring of texts. They’re mostly forgotten now, except as exemplars of a certain kind of namby-pamby self-righteous bloviating.

One can predict that, in time, this new edition of Twain will become a kind of curiosity of an overweeningly self-conscious timidity, and be mostly forgotten too.

All this aside, I hope you have time to travel down the river with my old friend Huck and his friend, Jim. It’s a joyful and adventurous story, and full of some of the greatest writing in the language. It’s probably in your library, there are plenty of inexpensive copies in the bookstores, or you can download a free copy (it’s in the public domain) for your e-reader.

At the last, his days on the river at an end, Huck is returned to the sheltering arms of Aunt Sally and is once again in the throes of being “civilized.” That’s when he delivers one of his most famous lines as he contemplates “lighting out for the territories.”

Let’s go, Huck!

© 2013 Brad Nixon

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Responses

  1. As it happens, Brad, I had picked up a wonderful reprint of Huckleberry at the Penguin Books booth at the American Library Assoc. convention in San Diego (I trust it is not the new bowdlerized version). I was already planning to reread it — I first read it in college — and can hardly wait thanks to your timely encomium. BTW, Mr. Clemens made an appearance at ALA in the guise of some would-be performer at public library events, dressed in white suit and carrying a foot-long (but unlit of course) cigar! Yes, Twain is really in vogue.

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  2. I like this one!

    Coincidentally, I also recently downloaded a copy to my iPod Touch from the Google Books site. Same deal, thinking either I haven’t read it since junior high, or maybe never and I just imagine I have (yes I am feeble now 🙂 ).

    I was really interested in the Bowdler thing as well, That was cool to know.

    YOU are the man.

    Tom

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  3. I’m with you on that one. You don’t “edit” or redact works of literature so as not to risk offense or to be politically correct. You leave them alone, and then explain them in the context of the period in which they were written to as to ENLIGHTEN the reader, rather than to keep the reader in blissful ignorance of both the past and the present.

    If we are going to censor great writers, then also remove their names from their works as the authors and replace those names with those of the censors. If we are going to be “correct,” that is. And that goes for works of art, too, John Ashcroft. (Remember during the Bush Administration that he ordered all “nude” statues in federal buildings covered “so as not to offend?” John, these are marble statues, not real people, and not even likenesses of real people! Grow up!)

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