Huck on the hook
Leave it alone but keep it out of the hands of children
There’s been a minor hubbub in the media lately about a new version of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn that replaces the word “nigger” with “slave.” The editor, a college English professor, said he made the changes in the classic novel because he worried that it was falling off classroom reading lists because of its frequent use of what is now a racial slur.
He’s been roundly criticized for bowdlerizing an American classic to suit modern tastes, but he’s raised a good question: Given the longstanding controversy surrounding the book and the sensitivity many readers have toward it, should it be taught to children?
We might also ask, as the novelist Lorrie Moore does in a Jan. 15 New York Times opinion piece, whether the novel is appropriate in other ways. Can teachers adequately explain the context of the story, and should young students—especially African-American students—be required to study a book in which a principal character, the escaped slave Jim, is repeatedly burlesqued? Jim is meant to be a morally admirable character, but Twain also “is always looking for comedy and holds Jim up as a figure of howling fun, ridicule that is specific to his condition as a black man,” Moore writes.
The discussion has reminded me of the time, decades ago, when I taught Huckleberry Finn to a classroom of sixth-graders. I was a freshly minted English major teaching for the first time, and in my ignorance I thought a group of 11- and 12-year-olds would find the book entertaining and enlightening.
Some did, but for most it was a slog. Like all the kids, the one black child in the class, a girl, struggled to understand the use of the word “nigger” and the relationship between Huck and Jim. I tried to explain how the word was commonly used in a slave-holding society, but I’m not convinced she—or anybody else—understood. I worry she may have been hurt by the experience.
Moore argues that Huckleberry Finn is more appropriate for college-level students, who have the sophistication to understand its context and to recognize Twain’s exploitation of Jim. She goes on to suggest it’s time to trade in some of the staples of high-school lit classes, like To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn, and freshen up the reading lists. She recommends Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which my teenage son, for one, relished when he read it in eighth grade.
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Robert Speer is editor of the CN&R.