Defending The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain, and American History from the Politics of the Left
By: Jim Byrd
“The good writers are Henry James, Stephen Crane, and Mark Twain. That’s not the order they’re good in. There is no order for good writers…. All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating. But it’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” –Ernest Hemingway, The Green Hills of Africa
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is being censored; since censorship is a concept and weapon of the Left to enforce political correctness upon the masses, Mark Twain is involved in 21st century politics; when advocating or opposing the censoring of “Huck Finn,” one has taken a political stance But the Right has a storied history of ceremoniously burning books that they believe are evil with celebrated bonfires. Both the political Left and Right have ink-stained hands.
Why the compulsion to censor the classics? Ray Bradbury explained it best in his novel Fahrenheit 451: “Colored people donâ€™t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people donâ€™t feel good about Uncle Tomâ€™s Cabin. Burn it. Someoneâ€™s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book. Serenity, Montag, Peace, Montag.”
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is again being illuminated as a book unfit to read. The current controversy is not about the banning of the book and its anti-racist pedagogy, but about rewriting and altering part of the nucleus of the story by substituting certain words with current valueless and politically correct words, thus rendering impotent Twain’s impetus for writing the book. The gulf between banning a book and rewriting a book is a morally and intellectually unconquerable expanse of exalting political correctness over the truth. A banned book can be read at another juncture in time by the deprived, but a book altered from its original intent is a book stained with an inexpugnable stench.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was written in a language and dialect that Twain was a maestro at adapting to the written word. With the dialect, vernacular, and graphic details, Twain was able, with words, to transport the reader to a time just prior to the Civil War. Twain accomplished with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn regarding America’s history what Shakespeare said in Hamlet: “to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.”
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published in 1884, and the perennial banning started in 1885. It has been banned for a sundry of reasons for the past 126 years. Currently, the justification for banning Huckleberry Finn is to protect the children–especially children of African lineage–from the perceived racism and racial slurs in the book. But if the children–especially children of African lineage–need to be protected from raw unadulterated racism, they should be sequestered from listening to or reading Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, current Attorney General Eric Holder, and especially Michelle Obama’s senior thesis from Princeton.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is confined with good company, because at any given time, the rotating top five banned books are To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger, Lord of the Flies, by William Golding, Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson, and of course, Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn depicted a different era of the United States. At the beginning of the book, Mark Twain gives critical reasons for using dialect and vernacular, but first Twain prefaces it with his patented and self-effacing wry humor:
Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. By Order of the Author, Per G.G., Chief of Ordnance.
In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremist form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary “Pike County” dialect; and four modified varieties of the last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech. I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding. –The Author
Alan Gribben, an English professor at Auburn University, has been charged by NewSouth Books to calibrate The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and various other pieces of literature–which possess endowments that contemporary novelists are incapable of producing–to align with the ideology of the Left and self-inflicted illiterates. The n-word appears 219 times in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which Gribben will replace with the word “slave.” Gribben said, â€œItâ€™s such a shame that one word should be a barrier between a marvelous reading experience and a lot of readers.â€ The truth is contrary to Gribben’s assertion, as it is Twain’s conspicuous use of the word that makes The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn “a marvelous reading experience,” and more so an educational experience. Mark Twain said in a letter to George Bainton in 1888, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
Gribben also plans to replace the word “Injun Joe” with “Indian Joe,” and “half-breed” with “half-blood.” Gribben and NewSouth are creating words and phrases that did not exist in pre-Civil War U.S. These replacement words, as Twain would agree, are not remotely “almost right.”
To recalibrate The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn over what Twain considered a word significant to the story and authenticity of speech at that time would be the equivalent of writing a novel about WWII and never using the word “Nazi.” Mark Twain was not a racist, and I am sure he would have something ingenious to say about the Left’s pathological compulsion to rewrite the history of this country to align with their beliefs about how a particular portion of history should have been, rather than how it really was.
Gribben has acknowledged that his editing will diminish Twain’s purpose for certain words: “I want to provide an option for teachers and other people not comfortable with 219 instances of that word.” Other than depicting history authentically, Twain’s use of certain words was intended to make the reader uncomfortable, and to be uncomfortable should be hailed as progress. If a teacher cannot preface The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in such manner as to present the book as it was intended without being too uncomfortable to teach its lesson, then that pretty much sums up why the United States recently scored in the middle of 57 countries on academic performance, and will continue its decline in education.
History, if authentic, is a powerful force when studied at face value, but is defenseless against an unchecked, Leftist, revisionist agenda attempting to align the past with their contemporary ideology. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not merely a book, it is an artifact, a vivid, living, and irrefutable animated vestige of the South in the early 19th century. It is this fact that will cause it to persevere against all who wish to alter it.
For the sake of truth and authenticity, Twain portrays Jim as unintelligent and uneducated. This was the existence of an enslaved Southern black person, the effects of deprivation from a formal education and learning, and the general assumption that Jim’s character, civil virtues, and human qualities would mirror that of his intelligence and education. Paradoxically, Twain portrays Jim as a compassionate man, a man of great character, a man who breached the shackles of his lowly expectations, not as a black man, not as a runaway slave, but as a man. To eliminate the usage of the n-word, racial slurs, and the sub-human treatment that blacks suffered during this era would greatly and sadly diminish the victorious power of Jim’s character.
Twain also demonstrated the moral dilemma that Huck was forced to confront by making a choice about what was truly moral to him: Huck could turn Jim into the authorities as a runaway slave, which is what current society dictated as the moral and legal option; or, Huck could follow his moral compass, and treat Jim as the dear friend he had become, and as an unencumbered human being, and say nothing.
Replacing the word “nigger” with the word “slave” distorts history in myriad ways. It depicts every black person in America in the 19th century as a slave, when there were approximately 500,000 free blacks residing in the United States; it implies that all slaves are black; Twain already uses the term “slave” many times in the book with the proper and accurate context of that era, and misapplying the word “slave” completely confounds and distorts the meaning of the word “slave” in general, and the accurate use of it in the book. By using the replacement word “slave,” the ugliness, depravity, and even racism become background noise rather than the overtly caustic solicitation Twain intended.
Not all history is beautiful, heartwarming, and admirable. History can be dirty, gritty, and shameful. No one has the moral authority to edit the dirty, gritty, and shameful parts of history for the sake of political correctness, contemporary societal dictates, or the ignorant who take offense at teaching the past as it was. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is American history, and if a teacher, reader, or student feels uncomfortable with some of the dialect, Twain accomplished his goal; if a teacher, reader, or student feels nothing, Twain failed.
How racist is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? Put in a different context, if Maya Angelou, Alex Haley, or Ralph Ellison had written, in the 20th century, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the only time the term â€œracistâ€ would be used about the book would be if it were banned or the editing of uncomfortable words replaced.
Mark Twain’s crime: presenting an authentic view of life for a black person living in the South in the early 19th century.
Jim Byrd's website is A Skewed View.