Thursday, January 13, 2011

IN DEFENSE OF “SANITIZING” HUCKLEBERRY FINN: A current event on which I actually have the qualifications to speak

It’s often been said, and I agree, that the most courageous act of moral decency committed in American literature is the moment in Chapter XXXI of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when Huck, faced with the choice of returning the slave Jim to slavery or helping him go free, decides to help him go free. Huck struggles with the decision. In fact, all alone, he agonizes over it. He even tries to pray over it but can't, believing himself unworthy of God's attention. In the end, having decided to help free Jim, he says, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.”
      It’s difficult to make a modern audience understand the astonishing courage implicit in Huck’s decision. “Of course,” we say today, “helping free a slave is just the right thing to do, and Huck’s a good person.” But what makes Huck’s act remarkable is that he believes, in his very being, that freeing someone else’s slave is the wrong thing to do—it betrays everything he knows, his very history, his region, his family, his friends, and who and what he is. By god, he does it anyway. He never says to himself, “Even if everybody else believes this is wrong, I’m going to do it because I think it’s right.” He doesn’t think it’s right. He can’t think it’s right because he’s never been exposed to a moral system in which helping someone else’s slave escape is right. In his decision to help free Jim, Huck is banishing himself from his own moral universe and, as he sees it, throwing himself into a hellish world of moral chaos.
      The words “I’ll go to hell” are in fact no mere metaphor for Huck. He believes that God himself will damn him for helping Jim. And for Huck, hell is real, an actual place of eternal fire and pain, and by helping to free Jim, he believes, literally, that he will spend a tortured eternity in that pit of fire. Huck condemns himself to hell to help a friend. As I said, it is the most courageous act of moral decency in American literature.
      In 1975, as a young instructor, I taught an American literature survey course to sophomores at Memphis State University. As part of the course, I had my students read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I had written my Master’s thesis about the novel; my thesis was called “Huck Finn in the Land of the Dead.” Those who think of Huck Finn as a children’s book have never read it; it is filled with murder and other forms of violent death. The Mississippi River in it is choked with bodies, including that of Huck’s own father. As for the land, it teems with ghosts, as real to Huck as hell.
      I’ve got a couple of graduate degrees in American literature. I’m qualified to talk about this book.
     Anyway, back in 1975 at Memphis State, I decided to focus one class period on a discussion of Chapter XXXI of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Huck’s “All right, then, I’ll go to hell” moment. To refresh everyone’s memory of this section of the book, I decided to begin the class by reading the seven paragraphs leading up to “I’ll go to hell” and the two paragraphs after. This, I realized, would require me to say the word “nigger” six times. In my youthful arrogance, I decided this wouldn’t be a problem in a sophisticated college class—even in a class where exactly half the students, like half the population of Memphis, the city where Martin Luther King had recently been murdered, were black. I began by apologizing to the class for having to say the word, and then I began to read.
      I’ll put this as delicately as I can while still being truthful: Each time I spoke the word “nigger,” I felt as if someone had forced me to swallow a spoonful of shit.
     My students, black and white, were good about it all. They could tell how uncomfortable I was. The sweat on my forehead probably gave it away. As I recall, we ended up having a good discussion of the chapter, and I think we all understood how a boy who uses the word “nigger” could be a morally good, indeed morally courageous person, even as he used the word. In fact, as it becomes clear to anyone who reads the book thoughtfully, Huck’s use of the word helps prove just how morally courageous he is when he helps a man whom, because of his culturally limited vocabulary, he can only refer to as a “nigger” escape from slavery.
      All this, of course, is my way of leading into a statement about the recent controversy surrounding the “sanitized” version of Huckleberry Finn which Auburn professor Alan Gribben is soon to publish and in which he replaces the word “nigger” with the word “slave.” Here’s my statement, and it may surprise some of my friends: I think what Dr. Gribben is doing is okay. And I think it’s rather humorously hypocritical that the commentators of both the left and the right who are so eager to defend the word on TV can almost never bring themselves to say it out loud or even show it on the screen.
      As far as I can tell, Dr. Gribben does not wish to prevent anyone from reading the original text, with the word “nigger” in it. He is not saying that there’s anything wrong with the original text as Mark Twain wrote it. In fact, I’m pretty certain he himself prefers the original. All he is saying is that an alternative, “nigger”-free version might serve a useful purpose.
      And I think he might be right about that. This isn’t about giving in to political correctness or the forces of ignorance who have tried to remove the original Huck Finn from library shelves. No one is advocating censorship here or the taking of books out of any libraries. What this is about is making the book more accessible and less likely to be misunderstood by youngsters not yet sophisticated enough to understand the extraordinarily complex workings of literary irony by which the book is driven. The book is still great without the word “nigger.” Those of us who love it know that it is even greater with the word—but that doesn’t mean removing it is somehow an act of moral cowardice.
      My father grew up in Confederate-sympathizing Kentucky. He had ancestors and cousins who used the word “nigger” freely. But he, having transplanted both his body and his mind from the South to the North (which has its own racism, certainly), was as prejudice-free a man as I have ever known, and he despised the word. I am my father’s son. I would go to prison before I’d call someone a nigger.
      Yet I would encourage my own granddaughters to read the original book, complete with that word—as long as they have a parent or teacher to help them understand the complex of issues surrounding Huck’s own use of racist language. But some children have no such parent or teacher. Perhaps Dr. Gribben’s book will help such children take their first steps into Adventures of Huckleberry Finn without tripping over its not-so-easy subtleties. They can come to the real thing later.
      In any case, as an American lit specialist myself, one with a particular, abiding, deep love for Huck Finn, both the boy and the book, I am not prepared to consign Dr. Gribben to hell. Few of us have ever shown the moral courage that gives us the right to do that.


  1. My first attempt at reading Huck Finn was unsuccessful: "nigger" threw me off, like any other 12-year-old. I stumbled through the novel and sought its next appearance, chuckling at the profanity as any irreverent boy would.

    I have read it only three more times, but each read has taken me to a more profound level than the last.

    My high school prohibited teaching Native Son. I read that book as soon as I was aware of the directive. My generation loves a good scandal.

    My generation, my demographic will never scratch the surface of the hardship that accompanies "nigger," nor should it. But, the word is so essential to the irony that drives the novel that its redaction is problematic to the novel's integrity.

    The word is supposed to summon the most gruesome images in our history. Covering that word up is, though, symbolic of Jim's covering of Pap from Huck. This courtesy elicits the same emotional response as the novel's Wikipedia entry.

    It's vile, shameful, odious, and whatever the thesaurus has left. But covering up the atrocities of the ante bellum American South will not convince young readers to read. They want subversive, engaging, grotesque writing. They'll want to read Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint before Chaim Potok's My Name is Asher Lev.

    Instead of cleaning it up, the novel should drive home the nastiness of the oppression. In these data-mining days of Amazon and Pandora references, suggest more novels that will peel back the innocence. Recommend studying Simon Legree's wrath. Lend out your copy of Beloved. Hell, throw in a before/after chart of the lynching of Emmett Till.

    Huck Finn isn't supposed to be PG-13. It stands the test of time for a reason. "Slave" is a word Britney Spears self-describes vis-a-vis sexual relationships. "Nigger" is a word that kills, that assaults, that ruins reputations and careers. "Nigger" packs heat.

    If we're teaching children to read this novel, let's teach them to engage it headfirst. Get them uncomfortable, then discuss why the tension exists.

  2. Thanks for the wonderfully thoughtful (and well-written) comment, Ben. I prefer your approach of throwing the kids into Huck Finn as it is, head first, but I think the key is in your last clause: have someone there to discuss why the tension exists. Even though that's my preference, however, I can't condemn Dr. Gribben; his is a legitimate stance.
    I'm glad you know about *My Name Is Asher Lev*, which is a great book about issues not far from the one we're discussing here: should an artist's work, no matter how provocative and upsetting, be censored by the culture that generates it? In its own way, *Asher Lev* is as challenging as *Portnoy*--and even better written.
    Email me how you did on your LSAT, please, and what your plans are.
    --Ed Weathers