Friday, January 07, 2011

That Word

Let us note that the word slave does not appear in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn until Chapter XVI, just at that point where Mark Twain picked-up writing the book after a hiatus of about three years. What had probably begun as a story meant to profit from his great success with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer had taken a strange turn for the author. The humanity of his characters, and the vividness of their plight, in a time and place firmly rooted in his heart, pulled Twain inevitably away from the children's novel genre into deeper, in fact eternal waters.

The words slave and slavery together appear only eleven times in the book, mostly at the end, after the arch satire of selfish altruism (that least-understood, and liked, portion of the novel--Tom's sadistic plan to free Jim) is completed. From this we might safely presume that Twain didn't intend the book to be about slavery.

The words nigger and niggers appear more times than I care to count; occurring right off the bat, in Chapter I: By and by they fetched the niggers in and had prayers, and then everybody was off to bed. Let me suggest that the juxtaposition of the words niggers and prayers is not accidental. Right from the start, Twain meant the word to be far more insulting to a so-called Christian society than demeaning towards black people.

The last appearance of the word is in the final chapter. Huck asks Tom what he had meant to do if his insane plot to free Jim had worked. The answer is just as crazy as the plan: And he said, what he had planned in his head from the start, if we got Jim out all safe, was for us to run him down the river on the raft, and have adventures plumb to the mouth of the river, and then tell him about his being free, and take him back up home on a steamboat, in style, and pay him for his lost time, and write word ahead and get out all the niggers around, and have them waltz him into town with a torchlight procession and a brass-band, and then he would be a hero, and so would we.

That a well-meaning middlebrow academic has prepared an edition of the novel now to "get out all the 'niggers' around", replacing them with the word slave, for secondary school study should come as no special surprise; and I can't say it bothers me that much. Or, put another way, there are plenty of well-meaning middle- and lowbrow projects out there which bother me a lot more. It points to a certain laziness and prudery in the national character which Twain was very familiar with. If awakened from his eternal rest, he would probably say something acid and funny about it, and make damn sure all royalties from the stupid edition were paid to his estate.

The main problem with Huckleberry Finn, at least how it's regarded today, is partly Twain's fault: It is NOT, and never was, a young person's book. He only dressed it up as one--very deliberately with its many original illustrations--to rather strengthen its subversive blast. It should be read by adults, it needs to be read by adults. Most of the people complaining about the sanitized edition probably haven't read the damned thing since they were forced to in seventh grade, and probably regard it as a coming-of-age tale featuring two true friends. Making Huck Finn safe for kids is about as pointless as removing the drinking from The Great Gatsby for the edification of Mormons.

The new edition creates certain pedagogic difficulties I'm glad I don't need to solve. For one, the words nigger and slave are not exactly synonymous in the book, no more so than in the mouth of Huck's loutish Pap, who in a drunken tirade rages over his encounter with a highly-educated African-American:

Why, looky here. There was a free nigger there from Ohio [....] And what do you think? They said he was a p'fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything. And that ain't the wust. They said he could vote when he was at home. Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to? It was 'lection day, and I was just about to go and vote myself if I warn't too drunk to get there; but when they told me there was a State in this country where they'd let that nigger vote, I drawed out. I says I'll never vote agin.

Stranger still is how the new edition is to be presented to the poor, unsuspecting students. Are they to be told of the change, that whenever they see the word slave the author had written first nigger? (And if not, why not?) And now what to make of all those rappers, calling all their slaves in da house to represent?

Divide's Guide to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, edited and revised for publication, is now available in a Kindle edition for $3.95.

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