Thursday, January 20, 2011

Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn and Censorship

Shame on all those who are currently advocating the censorship of Mark Twain’s masterful The Adventures of Huckelberry Finn and disgraced are they who support such malfeasant censorship. However, one must not be overly worried by the transgression, for America has quite an inspiring tradition of respect and defense for freedom of expression thanks to countless activists, organizations and the right kind of lawyers and judges. Furthermore, in a positive sense, as is often observed, bad publicity is good publicity and when the publicity is for the American treasure Mark Twain and one of the greatest works of American literature it is all the better.

Mark Twain is rightly regarded by many as one of the greatest American writers and as the originator of American literature (influencing later writers of such scope and achievement as T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway) who first developed characters who spoke in the unique and authentic American languages and dialects found in the regions and cultures he wrote about. Ernest Hemmingway claimed that “[a]ll American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn…All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” T.S. Eliot compared Twain’s character, Huck, to other “permanent symbolic figures of fiction” such as “Ulysses, Faust, Don Quixote, Don Juan, Hamlet and other great discoveries…” The book is perhaps the best example of Twain’s invention using, as he prefaces the book himself with, “a number of dialects.”

Mark Twain is also known, unfortunately to a lesser extent, for his radical views grounded in a strong and independent moral vision of right and wrong. He was involved with the Anti-Imperialist League with its links to civil rights activism. He was an opponent to slavery and to racism (he was acquainted with Frederick Douglass and married into the abolitionist Langdon family, being the son-in-law to a leading conductor of the New York Underground Railroad) and Huck Finn is an ingenious expression of this.

The current movement by the publishing establishment advocating censorship is due to the fact that the word “nigger” is used commonly throughout the book, as the word was for sure used by such characters at the time, in accordance with reality (the commonplace usage of the word, I also must insist, is by no means yet a pastime).

Through Huck Finn Twain exposed the ugly everyday realities of racist ideology (such as the common use of the word “nigger”) and developed a main character, Huck Finn, who was immersed in such racist ideology, indoctrinated into believing that it was not only right, but God’s Will.

In the story Huck Finn lives with an abusive and alcoholic father and decides to escape by faking his own death and floating down the Mississippi. In the process of so doing he runs into a slave, Jim, who has escaped because he fears being sold and sent to New Orleans and they set off down the river together.

The book is about the adventures of Huck and Jim on the river and contains quite a breathtaking moral statement about racism and slavery. Huck Finn has been indoctrinated into believing that slavery is sanctioned by God and that to help a slave escape is theft (immoral and illegal) because a slave is actually a piece of property the Master rightfully owns and to help in such an escape would earn one an eternity in hell’s burning furnace.

Huck Finn several times faces this moral dilemma. When Huck and Jim first run into each other Huck promises not to tell on Jim: “But mind, you said you wouldn’t tell – you know you said you wouldn’t tell, Huck.”
“Well, I did. I said I wouldn’t and I’ll stick to it. Honest injun I will. People would call me a low-down Abolitionist and despise me for keeping mum – but that don’t make no difference. I ain’t a-going to tell.”

In one instant Huck lies to some people passing them, telling them that his family has smallpox so the men make sure to stay away, saving Jim from being found, caught and sent back. Huck then feels regret for not doing what he was taught he should do, report a runaway slave, but he feels good that Jim was not caught: “They went off, and I got aboard the raft, feeling bad and low, because I knowed very well I had done wrong, and I see it warn’t no use for me to try to learn to do right; a boy that don’t get started right when he’s little, ain’t got no show…Then I thought a minute, and says to myself, hold on; - s’pose you’d ‘a’ done right and give Jim up, would you felt better than what you do now? No, says I, I’d feel bad – I’d feel just the same way I do now. Well, then, says I, what’s the use you learning to do right, when it’s troublesome to do right and ain’t no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same? I was stuck. I couldn’t answer that.”

Later on Huck begins to think about helping Jim escape and the possible consequences and becomes torn: “The more I studied about this the more my conscience went to grinding me, and the more wicked and low-down and ornery I got to feeling. And at last, when it hit me all of a sudden that here was the plain hand of Providence…letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time…I most dropped in my tracks I was so scared.”

He recalls that had he gone to Sunday school they would have taught him that the way he was acting now would send him “to everlasting fire.” The thought makes him shiver and he decides to pray but cannot and he realizes he cannot pray of giving up the sin of harboring a runaway slave because it was a lie, he wasn’t going to and he knew it. He decides that he should write a letter to Jim’s owner and then pray.

He writes the letter and feels washed of sin but then begins to think of Jim and their trip down the river, he recalls “a-floating along, talking, singing and laughing” and finds that he is unable “to strike no places to harden” him against Jim, “but only the other kind.” He remembers how Jim would stand Huck’s watch on top of his own so that he could “go on sleeping,” how Jim called Huck “honey” and “do everything he could think of” for him and how “grateful” Jim was when Huck told the lie about smallpox, preventing Jim from being caught and how Jim said that Huck “was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now.”

Huck then sees the letter he just wrote: “I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell’ – and tore it up.”

Such a profound situation and moral statement provides the proper context for Twain’s use of the word “nigger” throughout the rest of the book and, after all, it is the context that is most important in matters such as these. The word is most assuredly an ugly, horrible word that conjures images of lynching, slavery, murder and the darkness of America’s past and present or, as Chester Stevens put it, the word “rings out like the sound of rifle fire,” and that is precisely Mark Twain’s point. Twain uses the word almost as a bludgeon by which he beats the heads of the complacent and the unconcerned. He is showing a little bit of the reality in all its ugliness and forcing one to confront it honestly and forthrightly.

It was in this sense that Booker T. Washington wrote that he could “not believe any one can read this story closely without becoming aware of the deep sympathy of the author in ‘Jim’…[O]ne cannot fail to observe that in some way or other the author without making any comment and without going out of his way, has somehow succeeded in making his readers feel a genuine respect for ‘Jim,’ in spite of the ignorance he displays. I cannot help feeling that in this character Mark Twain has, perhaps, exhibited his sympathy and interest in the masses of the negro people.”

Mark Twain has always been controversial and there have always been attempts to censure and ban several of his books, notably Huck Finn. In fact, Huck Finn was first banned just a few weeks after publication in 1885 in Concord Massachusetts due to the dialects used; deemed too course and vulgar and only fit for the slums by the well-to-do bourgeoisie of Concord. As recently as 2000 there was a move in Enid Oklahoma to have the book removed from the local high school’s required reading curriculum. The debate was heated.

Michelle M. Houle writes that “the school district contacted Jocelyn Chadwick” who was a leading Mark Twain scholar and an assistant professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education “to ease some tension.” Houle notes that Chadwick is “an African American whose ancestors were slaves on both sides of her family. Her parents were active in the civil rights movement when she was young, and she says that they gave her Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when she was just a child.”

Chadwick believes that “[t]hrough the controversy surrounding this book alone, Twain brings into schools what all of us in this country desperately need, yet fear, most: discussions – frank discussions – about race, race relations, interracial relations, race language, racial stereotypes and profiling, and, ultimately, true and unadulterated racial equality.”

Eventually the Enid school board voted to keep the book in the curriculum after Chadwick had visited, spoken with people and held a workshop (the workshop “included discussions about the book’s place in history, teaching strategies, and useful resources”).

The move to censor Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is essentially the move to efface the stark and dreadful realities of slavery and racism from history and to evade the difficult issues Twain illustrated in Huck Finn to which Chadwick refers to above.

NewSouth publishers has already censored their 2011 editions of the book, replacing "nigger" with "slave" (a change that makes little sense considering Jim, on the escape, is no longer a slave) and erasing the word "injun" altogether. NewSouth holds up Auburn University at Montgomery in Alabama English Professor Alan Gribben as justifying their censorship.

Gribben argues that the censoring places Twain's "ideas" and novel in the 21st century and prevents the book from possibly being banned. The latter argument is an affront to any notion of freedom of expression - you do not prevent a wrong, a book being banned, by committing a perceived lesser wrong, censoring - and should be discarded as nothing more than unprincipled confusion. The former argument is perhaps an even greater affront.

The argument that the censoring brings the book into the 21st century is hopelessly unknowing and misguided. The characters in the book are not 21st century characters driving down the highway in an SUV, they are characters who emerge from and exist within the Antebellum South and float down the Mississippi on a raft (the book is an obvious period piece, documenting a specific region in time).

If Twain’s Huck Finn is to be censored of the word shall then Frederick Douglass’ “Narrative” of his life be so censored as well? The book, being as it is Douglass’ autobiography, obviously contains the offensive word. Oddly enough, Douglass edits such vulgarity as “dumb bitch,” writing instead “d-b b-h,” while leaving “nigger” wholly intact.

The usage and context of the word in Douglass’ work is on a whole far more offensive than in any place in Huck Finn, having been derived from actual events rather than Twain’s sympathetic imagination. For just two such examples one should consult the last paragraph on page 35 and the last paragraph on page 40 that continues onto page 41 (cited in the Barnes & Noble Classics edition).

The examples quoted and recounted by Douglass consist of the true realities of racism and slavery and it is intellectually and morally acceptable to include these realities in a work of fiction that deals honestly with these realities. It is morally misguided and intellectually lost to suggest otherwise.

As observed earlier the word "nigger" is an incredibly offensive racial slur, but so too was the culture of racism and the structure of slavery and Jim Crow within which the word commonly existed. It is to sanitize and diminish the ugliness and terror of these realities to begin erasing the very details that constructed the horrific racist edifice in its totality.

First the ugly language of racism and slavery are erased, then what? Shall depictions of the whipping of slaves be banned or censored? For, certainly, the whipping of a slave, the chaining of slaves together, the selling off of slave children, the hanging of slaves and the whole of violence, murder and terrorism, all integral aspects of the evils of racism and slavery, are all an order of magnitude more offensive than the word "nigger."

The evils of racism and slavery must never be sanitized. Not in any detail. NewSouth must be boycotted and their products never purchased again.

The only thing more disgusting and repulsive than the everyday, commonplace realities of slavery and its aftermath is to compound these horrors by pretending that they did not happen and attempting to efface them from history.

Douglass, Frederick, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave

Houle, Michelle M., Mark Twain: Banned, Challenged, and Censored

Twain, Mark, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Williams, Tenley, Mark Twain: “The Lincoln of our Literature,” Bloom’s BioCritiques Mark Twain


Eli Jeremiah said...

Well said!! Censorship of any kind is ignoble and wrong. It's wrong enough when the literature in question is actually problematic or immoral (i.e.: Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice or Griffith's Birth of a Nation.) But it's even worse when the work is filled with moral conscience, like Huck Finn.

Huck Finn has been a target of would-be moral censors my whole life, both from conservatives who wish to santize Southern history and liberals who think the "n" word should be edited from literature. The former inclination is immoral; the latter is as ridiculous as opposing the film Milk because it contains homophobia.

The scene you described in which Huck realizes that morality transcends what he's been told by his local religious establishment is a watershed moment in American literature.

How sad that one of the best and most morally inspiring books ever written is subject to censure by folks who are disingenuous are plain wrong.

JDHURF said...

How sad indeed. I agree with you that censoring is "wrong enough" when the censored material is morally awry and even worse when the material contains as powerful a moral statement as Huck Finn.

The move to censor ugly words is, as you observe, as misguided as censoring Milk of homophobia.

It is also the worst sort of historical revisionism that erodes the totality of horror that is racism and slavery.

Anonymous said...

norman mailer took years to live down the "fugs'(original "fucks") he replaced in " to placate censorial commission of his publisher: thanks to ed sanders,-rock group -ha ha
anyway - i would prefer to see a switch around similar to one suggested by a. crowley regarding browning's "pippa passes" (switch i and a)
howz about "fuck hinn"? he could be a televangelist from the delta

Anonymous said...

by the way, as a former new orleanian, i learned from a new orleans public library exhibit that runaway slaves were sometimes beheaded and had their heads staked up at the end of canal street

Laissez les bons temps rouler - never was the same for me after that