Wednesday, February 12, 2014
The 129 Year Old Elephant
Arac's argument that debates and discussions regarding Huck Finn should be more multidimensional and comprehensively informed is both engaging and lucid; however, it is easy to overlook how necessary such a seemingly simple argument is today, even though it concerns a book that has been around for 129 years. One would think that a text that incorporates the "N-word" (yes, I'm copping out of typing/saying such a loaded word) 219 times would be unraveled very carefully, as Arac suggests, but its canonization has impeded our ability to carefully dissect the text. Evidence of this is seen in the influx of hostile mail that Harper Magazine received when it published Jane Smiley's "Say It Ain't So, Huck," in 1996, more than any other essay had ever received in Harper's history (Berube 693)! The impulse to shield Huck Finn from criticism due to the notion ingrained into us that it is a cornerstone of American literature is counterproductive for it allows us to ignore the nuances that the text truly contains. As Arac puts it, Huck Finn became "an icon of civil rights consciousness," even though this idolatry led individuals to read Huck Finn with blinders, causing them to loose sight of other muddied moral and social conflicts imbedded in the text. Arac's argument really struck me when he asked the question, "How great must artists be before we trust them so much that their words are treated not only as unchangeable but also as obligatory?" (Arac 31). It seems that by placing Twain and Huck Finn on a pedestal and lashing out at critics, we only do ourselves a disservice. If we encourage an attitude of complacency around a word, topic and history, it will pollute the future with this infectious complacency. While important, worthwhile discussions can stem from reading Huck Finn, ignoring major conflicts that the text brings to the table is irresponsible, especially at a grade school level. To ignore these conflicts is like ignoring an elephant in the room, one who stomps on notions of social justice, equality and civility while no one comments or explains the deeper issues and complicated historical context.