Thursday, January 6, 2011

MARK TWAIN: And the NewSouth Books Controversy

Many associate reading with a high school English teacher we can’t imagine ever having been young.   To be fair, the teachers have done the best they can.  Seeing that they were probably good students themselves, somewhat idealistic and naïve in desiring to pursue the goal of education, instructors are not the perfect candidates to comprehend violence, drug abuse or nymphomania.  They have practically nothing in common with the skinhead, pot smoker, slut or loser.  They will probably have problems keeping up with the simple adolescent rebel.  With the overcrowding of schools, they may limit themselves to the students they can handle: the good, compliant and well-behaved student who lacks the imagination to question anything.

When it comes to education the debate always becomes political concerning what our children should read.  And when we speak about censorship, the one book always mentioned is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain.  Huck Finn was a troublesome novel from the start, though its author understood how to use such adverse publicity to his own benefit.   After the novel was banned in several Boston libraries in 1885 Mark Twain remarked that such publicity guaranteed another 5,000 copies of the book would be sold.  Literary historians have been trying to figure out since that time why this particular novel has been so targeted.  Why not instead go after some dime-store smut novel?  Why not concern ourselves with the journals of Marquis de Sade?  Why not ban Mein Kampf?

The answer concerns the quality of our education because Huckleberry Finn is about as far as most English teachers are ready to take the debate.  The novel has been so defended by scholars that educators know somewhere they will find an intellectual justification for teaching it in class.  However lame the argument will be teachers know that they will never have to argue about the merits of the novel from their own perspective.  What is wrong is that the teachers really do not believe in Huckleberry Finn.  They believe in the novel only as a piece of history, a novel that must be placed in the context of time.  They present it as a quaint, entertaining piece of fiction, but they’ve never felt personally challenged by the narrative.

The novel, of course, is controversial because of the use of the term “nigger.”  Here is where we come dangerously close to exceeding the teacher’s comfort zone.  The teacher has been trained to point out that: (1) Twain never used the term “nigger” in a derogatory fashion; (2) the term was part of the common idiom in the pre-Civil War south; and (3) the point of the novel is that “Nigger” Jim was in fact a human being.  That probably would be the end of the discussion in a rural school in Kansas or North Dakota.  It might go over if a black teacher taught it to an all-black school.  There would be more problematic if a white teacher were to teach it to a school that was made up of mostly black students.  Most teachers would never use the term “nigger” themselves but, historical context aside they know damn well what the term implies.  Still, since the novel is a beloved phenomenon most scholars would rather explain away its faults than be accused of censorship.

 NewSouth Books is now trying to make it easier for our educators.  Not only are they willing to publish a book for our schools with the offending adjective left out, they are even willing to change the wording as if Twain had never written anything offensive to begin with (the term “nigger” will now become “slave” and “Injun” will become “Indian”).  We’re told that there will be a suitable introduction to this new volume explaining why the publishers believe such a step is necessary.  The publishers will even pat themselves on the back by proselytizing how this will encourage more young people to learn to appreciate a classic piece of literature.  I’m guessing little will be written concerning how NewSouth Books hopes to make a bundle in financial deals with schools.

NewSouth Books will have its defenders.  If these individuals are sincere at all, the mistake I still believe that they are making is that they overestimate the impact that reading will have upon the young.  Most students are so apathetic about reading in the first place that they only become eloquent when scratching out graffiti upon the bathroom walls.  They will not go out of their way to read Huckleberry Finn.  They certainly will not go out of their way to read Marx, Proust or Joyce.  Their interest might be peaked by one or two books of Henry Miller, but this will die very quickly.  As it is, many students will get more steamed up about a romance novel that appears in a Good Housekeeping magazine than by anything they will ever read in a school library.   Therefore, I think we should worry more about our child’s ability to read at all than attempt to create imagined controversies.  Why not let the kids read the Communist Manifesto or Lady Chatterley’s Lover?  I would be proud of any child who could make his way through Ulysses and still be able to figure out any alleged obscenities. 

I will say, however, that those calling this “political correctness run amuck” may want to be careful about what they wish for as the uncensored Twain often did not make for happy reading.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is mild in comparison to other of Twain’s works.  The Innocents Abroad first published in 1867 portrayed American’ tourists as rubes that groveled at the feet of their European ancestors.  Cannibalism in the Cars was a short story where members of Congress stranded on a train started consuming each other while all the long adhering to parliamentary protocol.  In 1901, Twain wrote two essays entitled To the Person Sitting in the Darkness and To My Missionary Critics lambasting the imperialist policies and religious pretensions of the McKinley’ administration (and supporters) concerning American intervention in China and the Philippines.  (So controversial were these essays that Vice President Theodore Roosevelt referred to Twain as a traitor.)  Letters from the Earth (not released in printed form for more than fifty years after Mark Twain’s death because Twain’s last surviving daughter would not allow this book to be published while she was still alive), What is Man and The Mysterious Stranger are as darkly pessimistic and anti-religious writings as anything published in the English language.  Far from comprehending the phenomena of Mark Twain, cultural conservatives only embrace the cheery humorist that was largely a fictional persona created by Samuel Langhorne Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain).

There’s too much outrage and too little honesty coming from both sides of this debate.  I hope NewSouth Books continues in its plans to print the expurgated volume of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and that not a single school system purchases a copy.  I also hope the unexpurgated version of Huckleberry Finn sits side by side in the library with The Merchant of Venice, Catcher in the Rye and Mein Kampf * (to show that the destiny and life of Hitler - the great fruitcake - should have been boring, ludicrous and inconsequential as evidenced by his writing).  Finally, whether The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is or is not read in the schools in the final intended form that Mark Twain allowed to be published, I hope that what is presented in our schools is not just material that educators feel they can comfortably present.  The term “nigger” is a word that is hurtful to a large group of descendents of slaves in the United States, and the term will not disappear simply because it is officially deleted from published material.  Racism needs to be directly confronted.  Unfortunately, racism will never completely go away.

*In 1939, a reporter named Alan Cranston (and later United States Senator) was sued by Hitler’s publisher for copyright infringement for attempting to bring out a more accurate translation of Mein Kampf than had already appeared in English.  Hitler’s publishers were worried that American readers might make the assumption that Hitler was an anti-Semite if a too accurate translation of Mein Kampf was actually released in English.  Too bad for Hitler that he won his lawsuit only after a half-million copies of the Cranston’ translation already was sold.

January 6, 2011 
© Robert S. Miller 2011

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