"A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read."...  ...Mark Twain.

Commentary of the Day - January 15, 2011: Huckleberry Finn Minus the Hurt.   Guest commentary by Sanford Pinsker.

Allan Gribben is a distinguished Twain scholar as well as a culture warrior of the first water.  Gribben, at least before he resigned from his post as full professor in the English Department at the University of Texas, had railed against what he regarded as the politically-correct changes that were part of a new course on race, class, and gender.  He went on to fight any vestiges of multiculturalism whenever they surfaced at UT or elsewhere.  This was during  the tempestuous l990s when, according to Gribben, he was given the icy shoulder by his colleagues on the Far Left.  Half Jeremiah, half martyr, Gribben told his sad story to any and all who would listen.

Professor Gribben, now an adjunct professor at Auburn University, is back on the hot seat again -- this time as the editor of a new version of  Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to be published by New South Press.  It  replaces the word "nigger" in Twain's text with  "slave." (Gribben’s more sensitive, 21st century version also drops the word "injun" in favor of "Indian." )

As Gribben would have it, many schoolchildren are so traumatized by the word "nigger" that they find Twain’s version of Huckleberry Finn tough sledding.  Nor do the troubles stop there; many  boards of education have banned Twain's novel from the classroom and from school libraries.  The result is that many high school students will never be exposed to the adventures of Huck and Jim.  Gribben's  version will not only change this sorry state of affairs but also bring Twain's classic into a contemporary context.  All we have to do is bend our minds around  the substitution of one word for another.

I have scoured the internet for evidence of anybody thinking that Gribben's sanitized Huck Finn is a good idea.  As one after another pundit argues, Huck Finn is a tough, uncompromising, altogether uncomfortable book.  That is what Twain intended, and nothing less will do.  Teachers need to assign the novel and then teach it—in the full context of its historical situation.  If they  are even partially successful, students will learn that Huck Finn is the most anti-racist novel ever produced in America, and that includes Harriet Beecher Stowe's four-hanky tearjerker, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Reading  the section of  Gribben's introduction that  talks about the need to pour old wine into new bottles, I could not help but think of other possibilities.  What might Gribben do with, say, Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, a play that might, just might, so upset certain schoolchildren that they end up poking fingers into their eyes?  Talk about a lawsuit in the making!  No doubt Gribben could modify the tale until Oedipus goes onto counseling and subsequently learns that he suffers from a complex named for himself.  The Bible is an even riper field to plow (as Twain himself once pointed out), with all manner of kinky things ripe for censure and then PC-modification.

Twain famously described his novel as the conflict between a "sound heart" (Huck's) and the "deformed conscience" that teachers, preachers, firemen, cops, or anybody  wielding authority inevitably create.

What Huck learns on the raft is that Jim is not only a man but also the best father figure he  ever had.  He struggles with a "deformed conscience" that tells him Jim is so much  chattel property, and that his duty is to turn him in.  But after much internal struggle, he discovers  that he can't -- and in the moment when he figures that hell "go to hell" for disobedience, he forever shames the slaveholders and those who stood by as people then called "niggers" were persecuted. 

Twain's novel has a long history of censorship going back to the blue bloods of Boston who thought of Huck as a terrible role model for children everywhere.  After all, he smokes, cuts school, and doesn't know the first thing about folding his hands and being "good."

All this is true enough but what lies just underneath the tissue of superficial complaint is the fact that Huck learns how to think -- and how to act -- for himself.  Those who prefer that Huck toe the social line do not approve of this behavior or this personal independence.  Small wonder that Huck ends his narrative by telling us that he's "lighting out for the territories" because he's had enough of "sivilization."

My students know full well that slavery is wrong; they also know that it was once the law of the land.  But in many classes I would challenge their smug superiority by asking them to imagine how they'll feel in forty years or so when hamburgers have been outlawed.  True, the artery-clogging stuff they serve up at McDonald's may be bad for you but it’s not illegal.  In my experience there will always be two or three vegetarians in the class and, outnumbered though they be, the moral grief they heap on their classmates is palpable.  I give them free rein for a while, and then remind them that there is really little moral equivalency between being a carnivore and being a slaveholder.

No doubt Professor Gribben has come to his new edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn armed with good intentions, and I admit that certain middle-school students may be too young to read Huck Finn in a classroom setting, or during the recess that follows.  Indeed, nobody wants students, of whatever age, to use Twain's novel as a license to hurl the word "nigger" at an African-American classmate.   But Twain’s novel is the best argument I can make for the "teachable moment" our politicians keep talking about.  To do this successfully, however, teachers and students need to read Twain's novel as he  intended it -- with all the hurt and the discomfort, black and white, it contains.

2011, Sanford Pinsker.
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Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor at Franklin and Marshall College. He now lives in south Florida where he thinks about weighty issues on cloudy days and occasionally reviews manuscripts for publishers.

The Irascible Professor comments: The IP agrees that it, indeed, would be better for students to study Huck Finn in the original, unexpurgated version.  But modern sensibilities being what they are, he knows that this is not going to be a choice for a very large number of students.  For them the expurgated version may be better than none at all.  And, often there is nothing better than reading an expurgated version of a text to pique a student's appetite for the original.


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© 2011 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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