Tuesday, October 4, 2011

1300 Words About How I Never Finished Huck Finn

Literati, please don't hate me.

A few months ago I alluded to a series of book-related pieces I was going to start writing about my favorite authors.  I still plan to do this, of course, since I want to talk about the authors I've really learned to love, especially in the interest of promoting some that many people may not be familiar with.  I'd like to think my reviews of indie authors in this space have increased their visibility just that little bit.

However, the first installment was going to be for an author that literally no one is not aware of.  Mark Twain (or, for the historically accurate, Samuel Clemens) is perhaps America's most celebrated writer.  He is our Shakespeare, our Hugo.  Tom Sawyer, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, endless satires, essays, stories...all are well-known to nearly every American high school English class.  And the work that has come to define him, and maybe the idea of the Great American Novel, is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

I know for a fact that I have been assigned to read this book on at least two separate occasions:  10th grade English, and a British/American Novels class in college.  And I didn't read it either time.  (I'm sorry, Ms. Black and Dr. Tierney!  You were both formative teachers, honestly!)  Oh, I know the story well enough, and a certain knack for cultural observation--and my own natural bullshitting ability--allowed me to both write and talk about it with what sounded like some authority, so I don't think anybody knew at the time.  Besides, at least as far as the college class was concerned, it was an intellectual break from designing make-believe airplanes and pretending to understand quantum physics for a few hours each week, so I didn't approach it with perhaps the zeal I should have.

This actually didn't bother me too much for a long time.  There were lots books I was assigned to read in various classes over the years that I didn't read, partly because I hate reading on a schedule, and partly because a lot of them simply didn't interest me in the slightest.  For instance, I will never, ever read Pride and Prejudice.  Like, ever, no matter what my sister says about it.  But recently a passing news story about Huck Finn rekindled my interest (and some latent guilt, it seems) in the book. 

One of the reasons the book has remained so culturally significant more than 125 years after it was first published is the way it deals with race relations in the Midwest in the mid-19th century.  The book frequently uses the n-word in a casual manner when referring to people of color, especially one of the chief characters and centers of conflict in the story, Jim.  (By the way, we all know what n-word I'm talking about, but I will not print it here.)  Anyway, the issue has popped up now and again for years, especially since the civil rights victories in the 1960's, specifically relating to whether the book should be banned from schools. 

Back in January (okay, so it wasn't that recent), the media lit up with the arrival of a new edition of Huck that replaced all instances of the word with "slave."  A couple of well-meaning scholars had produced the edited version of the classic in an effort to keep it off the banned book lists in so many high schools (not mine thankfully, though I didn't show much gratitude, see above).  This of course touched off a minor--or major, depending on how deep into the world of American literature you are--controversy about whether our society has finally reached the point of no return on the PC issue.  This is the usual sort of thing that happens when an issue this sensitive is brought out into the light for everyone to notice again, but a very interesting, and I think important question emerged from the chatter:  is Huck Finn a racist book?  Is there good reason for it to be banned?

Now, I can't begin to answer that question here, as I'm  not qualified and I don't write in this space to solve thorny societal questions...hence all the columns about cartoons.  For what it's worth, my opinion is that Huck Finn is not racist, meaning it doesn't have a racist agenda.  Twain wasn't condoning the system his characters lived in, and I have the feeling he was shining a light on the uglier part of the institutional racism entrenched in the still very wild Mississippi valley in the mid-19th century.  These were the thoughts I had when I heard the story about the "slave" edition, but I felt it was necessary to back them up, grow up little bit, and read it.  So I did...

...or I tried.  I bought a nicely unabridged Kindle version of the book (so I couldn't even read it in a public place and get credit for it!), and began.  As another small confession, I've never actually read Tom Sawyer either (though again, pop culture, bullshitting, yada-yada), so there was some initial confusion at the beginning since Huck Finn is technically a sequel, even making the reference in the opening line.  But this didn't stop me from getting into the story initially, since Huck is an interesting character with somewhat unusual motivations, caught squarely between opposing forces vying for his soul.  His moral compass is somewhat flawed, but the best heroes' always are, and besides, he looks to be doing the right thing as he eventually aids the runaway slave Jim. 

But my progress gradually bogged down until about 45% in, when I couldn't go on, for the stupidest of reasons:  I simply got tired of translating.  Reading the dialogue in this book is exhausting.  You ever watch an episode of Swamp People on the History Channel?  You know how even though those guys are ostensibly speaking English, HC helpfully puts subtitles along the bottom or else all of us Yankees would be hopelessly lost?  Yeah, Twain didn't use any subtitles.  Trying to figure out what Jim and Huck are saying to each other requires rereading and analyzing every truncated syllable, and that's not counting when Huck's drunkard father starts talking.  I got about as far as the Hatfields and McCoys-style feud that Huck managed to get himself involved in before I gave up.  However, Wikipedia assures me that many adventures and hijinks were had before the final, happy, ending.

Am I ashamed of this dismal failure to appreciate one of Americana's most treasured masterpieces?  A little, yes.  I always feel bad when I can't finish a book, even books I hate.  And I certainly don't hate this book--I just find it too tiring.  This was one of the first novels to embrace "dialect" writing, meaning the characters didn't speak Oxford English for the Earth-shattering reason that they weren't from Oxford.  This was something of a revolution at the time of the book's publishing, so maybe I'm not alone in my issues.  There are plenty of dead literature critics that agreed with me.

But did I answer the question for myself?  Is Huck Finn racist?  Twain approached the issue of racial inequality with a good deal of common sense at a time (less than 20 years post-Civil War) when everyone still viewed the practice as some sort of God-given law.  For that reason alone, I have to go with "no."  Also, Mark Twain was known to be a brilliant man.  I've personally never met a smart racist, and don't think they exist. 

One last question:  should it be read in high schools?  Of course it should...no book should ever be banned from a school.  Even Mein Kampf has importance when read with the right perspective (the right perspective being that of a wackaloon with daddy issues and terrible painting skills).  Maybe if some of the hand-wringers who've had Huck Finn banned had read 45% of it first, there'd be a little more racial understanding in the world.


  1. I couldnt finish it either. I always felt the way English teachers disected (necessarily so, im sure) books actually took away from them and made them harder to read and comprehend. The dialect in that book, while praised by a large part of the literary community, is cumbersome and confusing.

  2. Good post John! I never knew you had a blog until your wife posted it. I have actually never read Huck Finn or even wanted to before! I have actually only read a couple of the classics up until a few years ago. I find most of "the classics" enjoyable enough. Some of them I really like. BUT also like you I find some of them a bit dreadful to read. Some of them are honestly boring and some I just don't understand what in the heck they are saying and I don't care! Lol.
    As far as PC I think as a country we have gone a bit over the top on some things! It's ridiculous! Ocourse we wouldn't use the "n-word" today but when it was basically acceptable years ago it wouldn't have been a problem. So os this sensoring?

  3. Sorry about that...blogger doing stupid things.

    Anyway, thanks for the comments! The language in the classics is always tough for me, though usually I can fight my way into it for the reward. "The Picture of Dorian Grey" by Oscar Wilde is one that really paid off. Granted, it was about a generation newer than Huck Finn...