Effort to sanitize 'Huck Finn' is pure insanity

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As a society, we've decided that there's nothing more offensive when it comes to educating our young than an unexpurgated look at what it means to be an American.

In 1884, Samuel Clemens, a cultural DJ who went by the pen name "Mark Twain," dropped some terrifying science about American life called "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer's Comrade)."

It is a thematically ambitious novel with a problematic narrative structure, but no one has ever written a better satire or a more truthful account of race and class in America. It is a magnificent picaresque, featuring bountiful dollops of grace and grotesquery, that continues to resonate with those brave enough to actually read it.

The novel also features 219 appearances of the word "nigger," resulting in its forced exile to the margins of the high school curriculum in recent years.

Next month, a new edition of "Huckleberry Finn" that substitutes the word "slave" for the racist epithet will be published by NewSouth Books "Injun" has also been removed, in keeping with the mission of shielding young minds from any knowledge of America's racist past and self-deceptive present.

In a misguided attempt to rescue the novel from those who stupidly accuse it of racism, its editor, Auburn University professor Alan Gribben, has rendered it linguistically and morally incoherent.

Huck, the novel's adolescent narrator, is the illiterate son of a violent backwoods drunk. Fleeing exploitation by his shiftless father, Huck and his newfound companion, Jim, a runaway slave, escape down the Mississippi River on a raft. The story takes place in the 1840s, decades before the Civil War.

Like most 19th-century Americans, Huck believes whites are superior to blacks, so he initially feels guilty helping Miss Watson's "property" escape to freedom. He lives in a world where racism is the basis for American exceptionalism.

Once free, Jim's plan is to return to Missouri to rescue his wife and children. His growth from runaway property to full human in Huck's eyes provides the novel with its moral center.

The novel is famous both for its use of negro dialect and the unrefined tongue of Missouri's white working class. Every character sounds like Stepin Fetchit, which continually mystifies readers who assume blacks and whites are culturally distinct.

Despite its resemblance to a child's adventure story, "Huckleberry Finn" is a dagger to the heart of white privilege and its all-pervasive cultural assumptions. That's why the racists of Twain's time despised the book. They knew it was a veiled attack. We're too culturally self-absorbed to see what was obvious to them. We're so hung up on a word we miss the liberating speeches.

In many ways, the sanitized "Huckleberry Finn" is the flip side of the recent controversy over Virginia's school textbooks that reported two battalions of black soldiers fought for the Confederacy. That was a lie concocted to protect white Southern self-esteem by making secession look less like an attempt to preserve slavery.

Who is the intended audience for a sanitized version of "Huckleberry Finn"? Is it the 30 percent to 70 percent of black students who'll drop out of inner city public schools this year? I doubt it. If they're reading anything, it's garish urban fiction featuring the epithet in every conceivable iteration.

Is it to spare the delicate sensibilities of the black kids who remain? Unless those kids are also shielded from corporate-owned black popular culture, the epithet will be impossible to dodge outside the classroom.

Removing "nigger" from the pages of one of our most prophetic and subversive novels creates a space for even more glibness and self-deception by preserving the conceit that we're a society that doesn't "see" color.

Twain once described "Huckleberry Finn" as "a book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat."

It holds a mirror to our times just as it did Twain's. Like the novel's original audience, we're a society that has subconsciously internalized racist assumptions and values, whether we acknowledge it or not.

"Huckleberry Finn" is a book about a racist who tried to grow up in the American wilderness. The best many of us can ever hope to be is as good as Huck. What's the point of trying to blunt such a two-edged sword?


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.


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