Monday, January 27, 2014

Is Mark Twain too racy for high school?

I am always a bit embarrassed and even surprised that I have never read The Adventures of Huckleberry.  When I was in middle school, I thought of it more as a book for boys.  While my brother was off reading about Tom and Huck, I was reading The Little Princess.  Among my small predominantly white school, Huck Finn was considered a racially heightened book, and therefore was always up for questioning to be removed from the reading list.  In other words, Twain just made use of the N-word much too frequently, beyond the school’s comfort level.    

However, it’s equally reassuring and upsetting to realize that the novel instead acts as a progressive story that presents a world that was currently in a state of extreme racial tension, meaning my school’s reasoning for questioning the book’s intent was irrational. 

I love the way Twain is able to use Huck as a lens to look into the changing setting of America, bending and refracting the way that other characters see the very same scenes through the musings of his adolescent narrator.   In chapter six of the book, Huck’s father comments in his thick Mississippian dialect about a mulatto from Ohio who “was a p’fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything.”  Twain leaves the description with no explanation from the narrator, leaving Pap’s opinionated statements open ended as if he wants the reader to resolve it for themselves.  Throughout the story, Mark Twain uses similar techniques to present situations, to describe a story, allowing the audience to rationalize their own beliefs from the circumstances rather than giving an outright critique or answering all of the questions from his own viewpoint.  He is able to create a novel that includes race, but is not solely about it.    

1 comment:

  1. I think Courtney includes an excellent quote here. I pondered Pap's remarks in ch 6 too, and wondered why Twain wants to put them there. On the one hand, we're hearing Pap's extreme racism coupled with his abuse of Huck and distrust of the "govment." It's as if Twain can't go far enough to make him a bad character. But he's also signaling the existence of the African American college professor as someone who might have existed in *1845*. Twain might be playing with the chronology a bit, but I think he's referring to either Oberlin or Wilberforce, both in Ohio. I like this moment a lot: it's not just Pap's racism that we see here, it's that he's alerting us (and his readers of 1885, as Jim Crow laws were being enacted) to an alternative history, one that did include African Americans not only as free people, but as people in positions of power and prominence--teachers and scholars.