|Jan/Feb 2017 Salon|
© 2016 Elizabeth P. Glixman
It's already one of the most banned books in the United States. Why bother to ban it all over again?
These days it's mostly the "N" word that gets the book taken off school library shelves. There are still plenty of people, mostly of the older generation, for whom that word is so fraught, they don't want to see or hear it used under any circumstances, even in a work of literature. Perhaps in past days the reason Huckleberry Finn was kept from the impressionable minds of the young had more to do with its presenting the South in an unfavorable light. But my contention after four readings of the book is that it should be banned now, right now, because it contains downright seditious material.
It should be prohibited on at least two grounds: First, the book is unpatriotic and is in fact anti-American. Second, it is immoral. In fact it goes right to the heart of the bedrock of our morality and makes of it a mockery.
I'll address the second offense first. I'm referring, of course to the episode in one of the small towns along the Mississippi that Huck visits. A local storekeeper is being harassed by a fellow townsmen who stands outside his store and holds him up to scorn. The shopkeeper warns the man that if he doesn't desist he will be shot dead. The harasser does not desist, and the shopkeeper shoots him, much to the delight of the other townspeople who seem to enjoy a good killing to break up the monotony.
The scene then shifts to the shopkeeper's home, outside of which an old-fashioned lynch mob has gathered (both these scenes could have been lifted out of a Hollywood Western and no doubt inspired those Westerns, however indirectly). The shopkeeper, a man of few words who means what he says, appears on his porch with a gun and challenges the crowd to do what they have come for. He not only challenges, he ridicules, telling them that one or two of their number are "half a man," but the rest are no better than an "army" which—and here comes the sedition—is no better than a "mob of cowards"!
But my first reason for banning the book is even more serious. The incident with the shopkeeper could possibly be written off, with some expert academic help, as not really the author's opinion but only that of the character. But Huck Finn's long wrestle with his conscience about allowing Jim the slave to go free, to aid and abet him in the quest for that freedom, occupies much too great a part of the book not to question the author's intent. When, despite knowing it is not only criminal but morally wrong to deprive someone of their property, in this case their human property, Huck Finn does so anyway, accepting the fact of his guilt, even of his condemnation to hellfire, as a consequence, he makes it clear he has done exactly what his conscience told him not to do.
What's a conscience for if not to guide us toward good and away from evil? Do we really want to give our young people the message that conscience is only a repository for whatever society accepts as right or wrong at that particular moment? If so, are we prepared to take the consequences?
I say it isn't worth the risk. Therefore, I submit Huckleberry Finn should be removed from all public and academic library shelves, with the exception of special permission to be granted for its perusal by accredited and approved scholars whose intent is the study of seditious literature for the purpose of protecting society from its corrosive effects.
I hope you will write your congressperson to urge him or her to pass appropriate legislation without delay.
* "Ban Huckleberry Finn (Again)!" has easily been the most accessed, most criticized, and most misunderstood post on my personal blog over the past several years. Most of the hits have come by way of Google, enough that the link there shows up on the first or second search page, depending on what wording you use. I suspect these searches are students trolling for material to use in term papers. Even so, if they actually read the piece, they may be exposed to a different take on the novel from what they are accustomed, expressed as mock outrage: that Huckleberry Finn should be banned not because it's use of an offensive word, but because it preaches moral and social sedition. And, who knows? Those students might actually start thinking for themselves.
I wrote this piece before the new edition of the novel came out in which the word "nigger" has been changed to "slave." The N-word, as it is well known, is problematic and certainly controversial. But one thing it is not, is out of use. I hear it spoken all the time, and not just spoken by African Americans. White kids refer to each other as "nigger," with no offense or even racial reference intended. African Americans refer to each other using the word in a benign, even affectionate way. I've even heard one person use it to refer to his automobile: "That nigger wouldn't start!" And, of course, and all too frequently, people use it as an insult or as a slur.
The difference between those who take offense at its use and those who use the word freely and without any offense intended seems largely to be one of generation. Two African American friends of mine of a certain age both bristle at the reference to the word, while their children's generation use it blithely as if it meant nothing more objectionable than "guy" or "dude."
But the point of my article is that getting into a wax about the N-word misses the real social and political bombs in Huckleberry Finn: Huck's deliberate and well-thought-out choice to violate his conscience and help the slave Jim escape, thus willingly damning himself to hell by doing what he clearly recognizes is the wrong decision; and an episode in the novel that denigrates the character of the army, any army. Unless I am the first person to notice these two flagrant assaults on traditional morality, the fuss about the N-word can almost seem like an attempt to divert attention away from more serious issues within the book.
But I am neither original nor are the folk upset with the use of the N-word in the book that thoughtful. Objecting to the N-word is an easy way to look and feel morally upright without having to spend precious time or calories (the brain uses 30 percent of what we eat) on anything more than recycling someone else's thoughts. Never mind what I just said above about the contradictory ways the word is expressed and received by people in the same family. What about the way it was used in the South during the antebellum period in which the novel is set? What did it mean to the people who spoke it then in that place? Could Twain have used some other word without sacrificing verisimilitude? Was he too dense or too uncaring to do so?
There are lots of things wrong with this novel plot-wise and in other ways. Great novels of the past are rife with faults, largely caused by authors' laziness, bad taste and carelessness, as V.S. Pritchett points out in his essay on Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls. Those books are nevertheless great works of art. More recent novels by comparison, well-crafted and meticulously edited, are flawless as literary artifacts but rarely rise above the mediocre as literature. I suspect Twain gave serious thought to what he was doing when he let Huck Finn and the other characters speak the words real people used. About that he was not careless or lazy. Nor was he tasteless. And banning words, like banning books, is not a good idea. Nor is it effective except to make readers, especially young readers—those delicate souls the banners are trying to protect—eager to look up the naughty word for themselves.
Meanwhile, I suggest you read or reread the novel in the original (it wasn't until my third reading that I saw the bombshells I mentioned above, so color me dim). And, then, "discuss."