“You Don’t Know About Me…”

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By now, the literary world is ablaze with discussion over the new edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that replaces the 219 instances of the “n-word” with “slave.”  Enraged literary enthusiasts, educators, students, critics and scholars have voiced tremendous opposition and concern for this latest edition, referencing Orwell and predicting a future revision of Renaissance art with snuggies covering all nude bodies.

Unlike many reactionary editorials would have you believe, this issue is not as black-and-white as it might seem.  Responses would have people divided into two groups:  if you oppose this edition, you care about literature and the future of humanity; if you like this edition, you voted for Big Brother.  As someone who has taught this novel for the past few years, I can say with confidence that it’s not that simple.  Huck Finn has been passionately banned from many high school curricula due to the very fact that this word pervades the story.  Districts have faced lawsuits over this.  This is the age of differentiation of instruction, so how can we say that every public school student is ready for an intellectual discussion using a word that is arguably the most charged in our language?  And if they aren’t, should they be shielded from the book in its entirety?

These are reasonable questions.

My other issue, independent of the book itself, is the literary high-handedness I’ve seen in the backlash against this edition.  People speak of Mark Twain’s genius, how he chose each word carefully, how every sentence carries ponderous meaning to be deeply analyzed.  Advocates for Huck Finn love to cite the Ernest Hemingway quote, “All modern literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”  What no one ever mentions is that in Hemingway’s full quote, he takes exception to the final chapters of the book, which are the 19th century version of a farcical car chase.  Of course Mark Twain was a great writer, but that doesn’t mean doubting the brilliance of one or two chapters equates literary blasphemy.

I can picture Twain laughing in his grave at our squabbles here on earth, fighting over his words, what he meant, worrying about the fragility of childhood innocence in a cruel world.  I also think he would cringe at the idea of his book becoming a “classic” that students must read in school.  Remember that this is the same guy that said (I’m paraphrasing):  ”don’t let school interfere with your education” and “classics are books that people praise but don’t read.”  Again here–I’m not saying the book isn’t a classic, shouldn’t be read, shouldn’t be taught.  I’m simply saying that Twain would probably find our fiery debating hilarious.

Bottom line:  I don’t understand why the publication of one edition of a book–one of many editions available for purchase and offered as an option to schools that need it–has suddenly turned into a witch hunt to identify those who care about literature and free speech, and those who don’t.