Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Don't Fixate on One Word: 'Huck Finn' Was Mark Twain's Best Work

"You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth."

Mark Twain
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Sometime in February of 1885, Mark Twain published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. There are those who will tell you that it was published 130 years ago today — but I haven't been able to confirm the exact date, only the month and year.

I admit, I got around to reading it a lot later than I should have. I've tried to make up for lost time by re–reading it several times, though, and I believe it really is the fabled great American novel (although, interestingly, it was first published in England in December 1884). I've read a lot of Twain's writing in my life — I admire his work as only another writer can, and much of his best work can be found in the pages of Huckleberry Finn.

(I would be tempted to drop the "much of" portion of that preceding statement — except there are just too many excellent books and articles that Twain wrote in his lifetime to be that absolute.)

It is also a great glimpse into 19th–century America told by a man who lived in that century. Twain was a gifted writer, and his descriptions of people and places Conversations were written in the regional dialect of eastern Missouri where Twain grew up. The dialogue of the black characters was in the race–specific dialect — much of which survives to this day.

To an extent, I suppose, that was responsible for some of the attempts over the years to ban Huckleberry Finn from school libraries and such. But, mostly, the objection has been to the use of the word nigger, which is used frequently in the book — but, strange as this may sound, it wasn't intended in a racist way. It was a descriptive word, not a slur — unless it was preceded by words that were more specific accusations, and that definitely would change the context of the use of that word.

Fact is, Abraham Lincoln used the word nigger in conversation — and I think we all would agree that Lincoln was not a racist. Language has struggled in the last century or so to find an acceptable descriptive word for that segment of the population. When nigger came to be seen as a slur by most, the word colored came into favor, then the word black was preferred.

I believe that books that are about particular times and places should use, as much as possible, the language that was used in that place in that time, just as the characters should dress as the people of that time did and see the things those people saw — especially if the writer lived in those times.

And make no mistake — Twain definitely was writing from memory. The world he described in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn had ceased to exist a couple of decades before that book was published.

Not so long ago, there was a movement to sanitize Huck Finn by inserting a politically correct term every time nigger appeared in the book, but I have never felt right about that. It isn't used maliciously in the book, and by inserting a 21st–century word, you're forcing 19th–century characters to live by linguistic rules that were not of their time. There is no need to subject them to that just because we in the 21st century struggle with that issue. It changes the writer's work. You may not think it is much of a change, but I do. Writing is a form of self–expression. It is an art form and such external editing changes it, no matter how subtle you may think the change is. It reminds me of several years ago when there was a movement to "colorize" black–and–white movies. I tried to watch a colorized movie once, and it was like watching someone paint a mustache on the Mona Lisa.

Only the artist should change an artist's work.
"We said there warn't no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don't. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft."

Twain had a great memory, though. He was nearly 50 when he wrote Huckleberry Finn — and, in spite of what Huck said in those first sentences, maybe he did make up a lot of it, but his memory was sharper than that, and I think the world and the people he described really were those of the antebellum South. It is almost a time capsule, a glimpse at a world that existed nearly two centuries ago. Warts and all.

A point that those who complain about the use of the word nigger always seem to miss is that Huckleberry Finn was intended as a satire — and a scathing satire it was, too, on the attitudes of the time, particularly racist attitudes. In the story, Huck Finn was about 13 or 14 so, if Twain was using himself at that age as the model for the character and the time he was that age, the times he described were probably more than a decade before the start of the Civil War.

Huckleberry Finn is an entertaining history lesson that must never be allowed to vanish. I have the same copy on my shelf that I have had since I was in college. It's a bit ragged and dog–eared now, but I wouldn't part with it for anything.

As one who often laments the absence of knowledge of history in young Americans, I believe young people should be encouraged to read Huckleberry Finn, not discouraged. At the very least, it should not be banned from libraries — for libraries are supposed to contain knowledge for generations to come, to enlighten those who walk through their doors.