Bibliophiliac is the space where one passionate, voracious reader reflects on books and the reading life. You will find reviews, analysis, links, and reflections on poetry and prose both in and out of the mainstream.

A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. Franz Kafka

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Bowdlerized Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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.


Mel u said...

There seems a trend a foot to condescend to the American reading public with the recent postings suggesting that viewers of Oprah were not capable of reading Dickens without "professional" guidance

Unknown said...

Thank you for a thought-provoking reflection (both personal and professional!) on such an important topic. I'm a little surprised I haven't seen more reactions around the blogging world, but you covered the topic beautifully. Thank you!

bibliophiliac said...

@Melu--I agree. And it particularly ironic, since Dickens wrote for a popular audience.
@Katie--thanks for your kind words.

Mayo said...

01-09-11 - Blog
Curious! Why do we have to "Bowdlerize" some books and not all? How about the "Mother Goose,” why isn’t it “censored” or “cauterized” or “whitewashed” too? Why do we do it to one and not the others? It is an insult to the intellect of our teachers, our children and our people; and their minds’ capacity to figure out, read through the lines, dissect and figure out what the real history of a particular era in relations to what the author is trying to convey. What has this book done to previous generation that is not doing now? Why is it falling off the “classic” books’ list? Who decides? At the same time why can’t we allow this generation to know what the blacks were treated or called in the past? Why can’t we allow them to learn from the past, to live today and not repeat what is wrong about human failings in the past. If we "whitewash" everything, whom are we kidding, whom are we protecting from the past wrongs . . . our children? Then it is possible that they are doomed to repeat the sad history of this country. It is wrong to live a life full of lies. It is like denying that the Holocaust ever happened or that slavery ever happened. In my humble opinion, it is a disgrace and an insult to humanity!

Grad said...

Not only was this post very well-written, I am so happy you have broached this subject. I heard about the "sanitizing" of Huck Finn in a brief snippet on the news and then...nothing. I wondered whether anyone else out there was as concerned as I was over it. You make so many wonderful points in this post; you must be an amazing teacher.

ImageNations said...

Books are written in a period, reflect a period, for a period. Changing a word,a name or anything about the book changes the whole story. I don't believe we would achieve anything in this way. One does not change his past by merely avoiding it. A murdered person would not rise from the dead simply because the murderer changed his/her name. Doesn't happen. Let's keep the book as it is. Doing this is like murdering the book itself.

bibliophiliac said...

@May Lee--you make some very good points. I like what you say about teachers and students using the mind's capacity to figure things out.

bibliophiliac said...

@Grad--thanks for your kind words. I think it is essential that teachers come forward and be part of the discussion.

bibliophiliac said...

@Nana--you state it very well--we cannot change the past by avoiding it.

Bybee said...

Sam at Book Chase hit it on the head. He believes that someone tuned into the fact that teaching Huck Finn can be a squeamy experience wrapped in a good story and saw where there was money to be made.

I'm so indignant about the bowlderizing that I have resolved to read the original book this year.

bibliophiliac said...

@Bybee-I like that! A squeamy experience wrapped in a good story!

Natalie~Coffee and a Book Chick said...

Well written, thoughtful, and understanding. And I wholeheartedly agree with your thoughts. I am just absolutely disappointed at the decision to publish an altered version - how can we ever learn to be better as a society if we hide from all of our flaws?

Kate said...

Well said, Lisa.

I linked this over at Kate's Library.

Ashley M. said...

This is beautifully written. I think you said what a lot of us have been thinking.

bibliophiliac said...

@Kate-thanks for the Friday Five link!
@Ashley-thanks for your support.

Aisle B said...

Girl what an amazing post.

This is what writers have to do and that is to convey their thoughts, be it right or wrong, they have to say what passion drives them and let the reader decipher what road they will take once they've read what must be understood.

In some ways I'm against changing the texture of the original work since it was written in a specific "period". I hesitate in erasing the past since the present / future have learnt from that these are what can only be described as "outdated terms". It due to this reading experience that we realize how far we have come as a society, not to abject people by the colour of their skins or notions of cultural misunderstandings.

We can not erase the past but we do have to accept them as they are. It only shows how much we've progressed in the historical context. White -washing words will erase a distinctive part of our shared history. We can't make everything "nice" and hide what our children may fear. Better to face the demons as they are and understand how to conquer them.

Once again thank you for waking us up with this amazing post.

Molly said...

Such a terrific, well-worded, thoughtful post. While I do not teach Huck Finn (although the 10th grade teacher does) I do teach To Kill a Mockingbird, which also uses the n-word. Each year I have a parent question the content of the book, and each year I stand my ground. For the most part I have found that students get it -- it is the parents who lack the insight as to why we read these classic books in the way they were originally written.

I wanted to thank you for stopping by my blog and writing such an honest response. It is nice to know that my thought processes are not too bizarre :)