The Artful Scribbler

Mr. Twain, he’s not dead yet

Posted in books, commentary, literature, Race, Religion, Uncategorized by The Artful Scribbler on March 26, 2011

60 Minutes recently had an article on the continuing struggle over Mr. Twain’s book.  At the heart of the discussion was the debate of whether high school study of Huckleberry Finn should use a version of the book that includes “The Word”.  From the reactions and a reasonable knowledge of basic emotion, it is clear that this word has connotations that upset people.  The word in the context of Huckleberry Finn has power and it is interesting that there are those who want to keep the intent of the book while not including this particular piece.  This almost assumes Twain just threw it in there for the fun of it.  However, Twain knew what he was doing when he used the language he did in Huckleberry Finn, and was so particular about how people talked that he opened the book with the following short paragraph.

In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods South-Western dialect; the ordinary “Pike-Country” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last.  The shadings have not been done in a hap-hazard fashion, or by guess-work; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.

I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.

Twain, Mark.  Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. 1885.  New York: Random House, 1996. xxi

The introduction of this Random House edition mentions that when Huck was originally published it was widely discredited and banned due to the coarse nature of the language (ix).  What he did was introduce such a unique form of storytelling that many people struggled to understand what he was doing.  In order to go to this much effort to recreate manners of speech and expression, Twain must have been a keen observer of people.  Though I am not a Twain scholar, his stature as an author and cultural commentator has few peers.  He knew the impact of written words and chose them carefully in his work.  As is often the case with book banning, the focus is on particular “bad” words, without consideration for the meaning of the story.  On the one hand, my personal opinion is that using swear words purely to shock the reader only succeeds in being annoying.  However, in Huck, the language of the characters is germane to the story.  Twain used the word for a purpose, not the least of which is that it had then and continues to have now certain implications we would forget at our peril.  I agree with Professor Bradley in the 60 Minutes piece.  Essentially, bring the word into the classroom in the context of the book.  However, I disagree partially in that this needs to be discussed and brought into the greater theme so that students can get past being upset.

It is important that English teachers and scholars at all levels of education continue to present these topics to students.  Though I joked in my previous blog about hiring the unemployed Linguists to replace all the controversial words, stepping in and changing an author’s words dramatically alters the impact of a book (The Linguists have better things to do anyway).  The students may squirm a little in their seats and mumble replies, but so what.  If that turns out to be the most difficult event teenagers will have to face as they mature, good for them.  Huck is about more than a man and boy on a raft having a grand adventure.  If it were, the book would have fallen out of the reading canon.  The book is about how people from various races and backgrounds treat each other and how they do or do not come to grips with their differences and likenesses.  Life was not pleasant in the 19th century, and though much has improved, problems persist.  Was Huck divided in his views?  Did his views change?  Are we still that way?  You tell me.  These simple questions are discomforting, but is that not the point?  This controversy illustrates the power of a well-written story, and the limitations of relying on a single person’s perceptions or something like Sparknotes.  An edited version or 21st century internet interpretation cannot convey the language and tone Twain put into this book.  In order to absolutely understand Huck, why he talked the way he did and used the words he used (in essence the meaning of the story), a person must read it page for page.  So, log off, put on your glasses, and start reading.



6 Responses

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  1. Brant Marsh said, on May 19, 2013 at 2:09 pm

    There is a difference in what should be taught in grad school and grammer school. Young people are emotionally fragile, and there is no reason to subject them to a word that makes them feel embarrased or vulnerable especially when the word slave could be used without any real change to the book. Young people today are expected to be mature adults, when real adults should be more protective and allow them to be children. Most of us remember hurtful things that were said to us when we were young vividly, and they had much more impact on our lives than physical pain. As far as all the strong reaction to changing a book, we’ve revised books always. The Bible has been revised how many times?

    • The Artful Scribbler said, on May 21, 2013 at 8:37 pm

      Young people are stronger than you think they are. There is a difference between calling someone a name in anger or on the playground, and what Twain wrote. In the right context, properly taught, this can be brought to the classroom. As I said, the language Twain used was very specific. It does change the meaning to what he wrote; it changes the characters who speak those words in the book. I agree, the bible has been revised countless times, and that’s my point. Look at the confusion this has caused. People will always argue that their version is the right version, and so on and so on.

  2. The Writer said, on April 26, 2011 at 12:41 am

    This reminds me of one of my high school English teachers who told the class about the difference between reading To Kill a Mockingbird to a class of mostly white or Asian kids in California and reading the same book to a class of white and black kids in Virginia. I can’t even imagine the tension, though I agree that this kind of discussion needs to happen in schools.

    • The Artful Scribbler said, on April 26, 2011 at 7:13 pm

      Yes, that is my point and I think the point of the authors as well. These books are challenging, especially for High School, but in the proper context they are also enlightening. One of my concerns is that literature becomes dumbed down and sanitized. To really understand a book like the one mentioned requires education in the years prior to reading it. I’ll admit, I really did not comprehend those types of books at that age, but I also went to a lousy high school.

  3. The Artful Scribbler said, on March 29, 2011 at 8:01 pm

    Thanks for your comment B. I was referring to the N-word. You’re right. Books like this have too much to teach about human beings. Using a story is always a fascinating way to initiate discussion whether a person agrees with it or not. Stories in many forms carry enormous weight. It may seem quaint, but it was not that long ago that people were burning comic books in this country.

  4. BF said, on March 29, 2011 at 3:28 pm

    As I recall, it was the “N” word not “The Word” that was being referred to in 60 Minutes. That seems to be the politically correct way to say nigger. The music industry also has been taken to task by the elder blacks for the rappers to quit using the “N Word” as they call it.

    I really appreciate that you put it into context in that the word “has power” and saying that was Twain’s point in using it the way he did. It’s a teachable moment in using the book in schools – not a time to sanitize.

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