Mr. Twain, he’s not dead yet
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.