Wednesday, June 22, 2011
Mark Twain enjoyed ruffling feathers by poking fun at politicians and preachers, but he could not possibly have foreseen, when he published Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1884, that this novel would be stirring controversy well into the 21st century. When it first appeared in the United States, Twain’s use of common speech between characters was so unprecedented that many librarians considered the book “trash” and refused to carry it. The subject matter, too, caused some uneasiness although it would be another century before Americans would have the vocabulary to discuss race relations intelligently. In my lifetime, black Americans have gone from segregation to the White House. Just the same, most white Americans are still uneasy discussing race in mixed settings. We are afraid of giving offence, of sounding insensitive, of betraying hidden racist tendencies. One word in particular – “nigger” – makes most of us cringe to the extent that we won’t say it even to ourselves. What is it about that word that makes us so uncomfortable?
In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the so-called “n-word” appears 219 times. “Nigger” is a bastardized form of the word “negro”, meaning black, which came into common usage in colonial times. When Mark Twain, wrote this book using “negro” would have seemed odd in dialog that was meant to capture the way people spoke. Recently, a publishing house catering to schools issued a sanitized version of the book, replacing “nigger” with “slave” and “injun” with “indian”. Rather than calming the controversy, these well-intentioned revisions have inadvertently started an important conversation in America about how slavery still defines us.
Before Huckleberry Finn there was Tom Sawyer: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a delightful story of childhood along the banks of the Mississippi River. Tom is an engaging, opportunistic, and fearless boy who can’t avoid trouble. One of his friends is Huckleberry Finn, the motherless son of a shiftless and abusive drunkard. The two boys witness a murder but allow an innocent man to be jailed for the crime out of fear for their own safety. This is the first moral dilemma that Huck has to face in his life. In the end, the truth comes out and the innocent man is freed; and Tom and Huck find hidden treasure and become wealthy.
Huckleberry Finn is a much more nuanced and interesting character than Tom Sawyer. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn takes place after Tom and Huck come out of hiding and reveal their wealth. Huck is adopted by the “Widder” Douglas and her sister Miss Watson, who owns a slave named Jim. Huck chafes under the civilizing influence of the sisters and runs off to hide out with Tom and his gang. Huck’s father, “Pap”, hearing of Huck’s fortune, reappears to assert his parental rights. He tracks Huck down and confines him in a remote cabin in conditions resembling slavery. Huck contrives to fake his death and flees to seek his fortune on the mighty Mississippi River.
Meanwhile Jim, hearing that Miss Watson plans to “sell him down the river”, runs away and by chance he and Huck meet up on an uninhabited island. Their reunion is comical in that Jim, believing Huck to be dead, thinks he is encountering a ghost. It takes Huck a while to overcome Jim’s superstitions but eventually the two team up to escape their respective horrors. Huck, being a Christian, has been taught the difference between right and wrong and so he is conflicted about whether or not to turn Jim in, after all Jim is Miss Watson’s property. While Huck believes he is guilty of a crime for helping Jim escape from kind Miss Watson, it is a dilemma he chooses to live with until he reaches an epiphany: that Jim is not only his true friend, but a human being in his own right.
The friendship between Huck and Jim is one of the sweetest in American literature because Huck’s uneducated mind follows his heart to a place of deep appreciation and compassion. On the surface, Jim is the stereotypical slave: ignorant, superstitious, passive, cajoling, humble, and servile. What we learn is that despite his lack of education and his pandering behavior, he possesses a great wisdom and morality which enable him to teach Huck by example and willingly put himself at risk to protect his young friend.
Mark Twain was an astute observer of the human species and used his works of fiction and journalism to point out hypocrisies and self-delusions. During their travels, Huck and Jim encounter a couple of grifters who latch onto them for their own advantage. The grifters who come to be called “The King” and “The Duke” move from town to town selling tickets to a bogus show which they call “The Royal Nonesuch”. Huck and Jim cannot escape from these menacing con artists and end up being pawns in a scheme to steal the inheritance from an orphaned girl who befriends Huck. He manages to thwart the thieves and rejoin Jim on the raft, but The King and The Duke catch up with them and cook up a scheme to sell news of Jim’s whereabouts in order to collect a reward. Huckleberry Finn could have ended in tragedy, but Mark Twain had a light heart; he tied up all the loose ends and made Jim a free man.
Samuel Clemons, who wrote under several pseudonyms, was born in 1835, in Florida, Missouri, not far from the Mississippi River. As a youth, he worked as a printer’s apprentice and typesetter. Drawn to the mighty river, he earned his riverboat pilot’s license, which required that he understand the ever-changing dynamics of moving water in order to guide boats into port. His career ended when the Civil War halted river traffic. Mr. Clemons then followed his brother, Orion, to the Nevada Territory and tried his luck at mining. The people he met during his travels provided fodder for his writing career which took off following the publication of “The Celebrated Frog of Calaveras County”, a humorous piece about a man with a betting problem. The pen name “Mark Twain” comes from a nautical term referring to the depth of water needed for a riverboat to clear, an apt metaphor for an author who sought to elucidate hypocrisies, delusions, and frauds.
Mark Twain’s success as a writer led to his marriage to Olivia Langdon, a wealthy woman from a liberal, Connecticut family. Through this connection, he met Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, and other Abolitionists who helped shape his views about slavery, which - like Huck’s, and like America’s – evolved. Mark Twain was born in a time when people legally kept slaves. As an adult, he saw that slavery was an evil practice and famously said that Emancipation freed the entire nation from the chains of slavery.
Ending slavery in America – a moral imperative – did not usher in a golden age of harmony between the races. Hundreds of thousands of newly freed slaves who owned nothing and belonged nowhere suddenly had responsibility for themselves. Some remained where they were, working the same land as before, beholden to a boss instead of owned by a master. Others moved to cities in search of work. A fortunate few had valuable skills and property which enabled them to create businesses and farms of their own. What they all shared was the taint of slavery, of somehow being less than human and therefore subject to scorn and revulsion. The word “nigger” carries this ugliness and hatred with it to this day.
While removing the offensive epithet from Huckleberry Finn might make certain students, parents, and teachers more comfortable, it does a great disservice to the book and to the people on whose backs the plantation economy was built. Sanitizing Mark Twain’s American literary classic takes away an opportunity for students in mixed race settings to have the discussion about why a little six-letter word can have such power, and how we might one day strip that power away.
Copyright 2011, Teresa Friedlander, all rights reserved