For the Protection of Women and Children
Thomas Bowdler decided to publish an edition of Shakespeare that would be "appropriate" for women and children. Among the changes Bowdler made: Lady Macbeth says "Out crimson spot" instead of "Out damned spot." So much better for the children. Of course, this was way back in the unenlightened nineteenth century. Ahem.
Now New South publishers wants to conveniently erase the Old South (somewhat like Haley Barbour, who recalls the good old days of Jim Crow as "not that bad"). I'm trying to wrap my brain around this concept: take out the offending word, and make Adventures of Huckleberry Finn safe for children and teachers?
Is it just me, or is this incredibly condescending?
Of course, teachers are assumed to be incapable of teaching a challenging novel like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or too afraid. Is this an old prejudice dating from a time when teachers were mostly female, or is this the new wave of contempt directed at teachers? I find it interesting that teachers' voices aren't being heard in this debate (not surprising, just interesting). It's true that teaching Huck Finn requires much from both teacher and student. It requires thoughtful planning, sensitivity, and an ability to set aside fear, shame, and prevarication, and talk honestly about the most difficult topics. That sounds like a worthy goal for instruction.
To expurgate the dreaded word shows both cowardice and prevarication, two qualities Mark Twain held in contempt. This is a situation replete with irony, which Twain employed with all the artistry and grace of a great writer--which is, of course, what he was.
Floating Down the River on a Raft
Here's how you get on the raft with your students: know your students, and know them well. Approach the novel with honesty, and don't be afraid to admit your own nervousness, shame, and trepidation. Then simultaneously show them and have them discover the delights of what is a very beautiful novel. Talk about what you are reading, and allow the students to talk about their experience of the novel.
This Amazing, Troubling Book
In an essay reprinted in The Norton Critical Edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Toni Morrison recounts her experiences reading, and rereading "this amazing, troubling book." She talks about "fear and alarm" and "muffled rage," but also genius. "For a hundred years, the argument that this novel is has been identified, reidentified, examined, waged, and advanced. What is cannot be is dismissed. It is classic literature, which is to say it heaves, manifests and lasts."
That's What Makes It a Classic
If Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were not a classic, a truly great book, I would never teach it again. I have taught this book over and over, and it never gets any easier. There is the dialect, the caricature descriptions of Jim, and the troublesome word. And yet, it is clear to me each time I read this book that running like a current through this book is the greatness of the book. The utter rascality and worthlessness of Pap, and his rant against the government is as true and as real as the day it was written. The cruelty and contempt of Colonel Sherburn, and the pitiful death of Boggs. The maddening antics of the Duke and the King. The mendacity and hypocrisy of just about everyone.
The Truth Hurts
Mark Twain cast a scorching eye across all that is ugly (and some of what was good and worthy) in human nature. The truth about our country's past is very hard to look at. But not looking at it doesn't make the ugliness go away. The casual use of a word that dismisses the humanity of a whole race is difficult to read over and over. But replacing that word with another one (and by the way, slave is not a synonym for the other word) is not the solution. Teach or read the book as it was written, or don't teach it all all.
I deeply empathize with readers who wince at the use of the offensive epithet. I think the classroom teacher who teaches books that use this word must do so with sensitivity and empathy. And as a teacher, I always reserve the right to change my plan. One year we put Adventures of Huckleberry Finn aside and instead I taught a unit on censorship. That was one of my most successful teaching experiences, and the students loved it. The students read and researched banned and challenged books, they interviewed adults and other students on the topic, and they made a movie about banned books in schools. (Note to teachers: the way to get high school students to actually check books out from the library is to ask your media specialist to fill a cart with books that have been banned or challenged).
When people of all ages begin having honest and respectful conversations about race we won't need to resort to Bowdlerization of the classics. I also think that there needs to be a better representation of books by African American writers in the curriculum. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird are two truly great books that are frequently taught in schools, but each of these books tells a story primarily from the point-of-view of White characters, and each is written by a White writer.
You might have noticed I've so far avoided using the expurgated epithet. It's a word I don't use in speech or writing. Full disclosure: I am not African American, but I am married to an African American man. I read somewhere that only 6% of all married couples are interracial; I don't know if that is true, but I do know that it is still surprisingly rare. My sensitivity to the issues surrounding the use of racial epithets is real and personal, and so many times I have wanted to shy away from teaching a book because of this. But honesty is better than avoidance; thinking these problems through has made me a more reflective teacher, I think. I do understand the feeling behind the expurgated Huck Finn, but conscience does make cowards of us all, as Lady Macbeth would say. Sometimes we just have to be brave enough to wade through all the shame and muffled rage.