Sunday, November 5, 2017

On Whether To Teach Huck Finn As Written Or At All


Another thing about Huck Finn: that’s whether there’s a need to not teach the book or at a minimum whether “nigger”should be excised and replaced by (say) “slave.”

Of course I understand how the many times “nigger”appears and how blacks are portrayed are extremely offensive or can be. 

But should for that reason this masterpiece of world literature not be taught or not taught as written by Twain? 

I can see the argument for it not being taught or “nigger” bowdlerized. 

But in my judgment the argument is wrong and misses how precisely studying Huck Finn is at the essence of what it means to be liberally educated. 

For if there ever was an American great work of fiction that savages systemic racism, scorns the status of slavery, and indicts viciously and excoriates with literary finesse and fury too the society that enables and perpetuates these poisons, it’s Huck Finn. The novel, in one way of putting it, traces with deep and pervasive irony Huck’s emergence from the impact of these poisons to come to their redemptive rejection. 

So readers of all cultures and races and beliefs as they read, study and are taught Huck Finn should, I’d think, emerge from their initial shock from, repugnance with, and understandable reflexive reaction against the novel with a deeper, educated consciousness and appreciation of Huck’s emergence and what it means thematically. 

I’d think that with that journey from book’s beginning to its end, with that education out of first and maybe reflexive reactions and presumptions with all the stress and discomfort they may well cause we have a microcosm for what a liberal ought do among other things. And in this particular journey, Huck’s vernacular, his attitudes, the way black slaves are depicted are but a huge aspect of the novel’s brilliance and are essential thematically. For they depict with concrete,  pungent and realistic brilliance Huck’s world and they set with equal brilliance and psychological acuity the terms of from what he emerges. In this they amplify the power of that emergence. 

So in my view that’s what’s to be gained from studying and teaching the novel as written and what’s to be lost by not. The issue seems to me a test case for what a liberal education ought to be. 

In the same way, Jewish, I welcome the teaching of (say) The Merchant of Venice even as Shylock falls from his thundering Old Testament heights to being sent away like a defeated and servile dog or David Copperhead/Field, whatever, even as Fagan as a figure of looming effeminate unreserved evil gets no redemption and effectively and obnoxiously embodies Dickens’s anti semitism. And I welcome them not as in Huck Finn, where a redemptive vision emerges, but because like Huck Finn they are world class works of literature whose power overwhelms their anti semitism in deciding whether they should be taught.

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