Friday, January 7, 2011

A High School English Teacher on Huck Finn's Bowdlerization

After doing some reading and thinking about the bowdlerization of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huck Finn, I realized I wasn't hearing as much directly from K-12 teachers or students as I wanted to. Hence, I asked what my father-in-law, Joe Riener, had to say. He's a high school English teacher and Mark Twain aficionado who spends four to six classes each year teaching Huck Finn.

I would LOVE to hear from other teachers and students on this, and I hope they'll comment below or on my next post, my own analysis of the controversy.

Here's are Joe's thoughts on the recent revision of Huck Finn:

It seems quite natural to me that the descendants of those who felt this
word’s lash would seek to protect their children from it. Like the swastika, it
evokes the enormity of human suffering in our collective souls. I can
imagine, if I were to stand outside a DC Metro stop shouting “Nigger!” that
middle-aged men and women, in suits on their way to work, would beat me
to death, or weep as they flee from the sound of that terrible word.

I do remember the knot in my stomach when my ten year old son asked me,
“Dad, what’s the Holocaust?” To explain human evil to children robs them.
Let’s not have children read this book. We don’t want them to know. This is
better than concealing the truth, covering up our awful history like a mass
grave or a burial at sea. When we decide we want to educate the young,
let’s do it for real.

I’m an educator who teaches Huck Finn every year to high school students.
Before we begin, I have them read Gloria Naylor’s short essay, “Mommy,
what does nigger mean?” Naylor came home one day from grade school. A
white boy, irritated that she’d done better on a test that he did, had used it.
She’d heard it many times before that, fondly characterizing relatives or
friends. Clearly the angry boy intended it differently. So mom told her what
he meant. We then talk in class about the power of language to oppress.
That’s the word’s purpose. It’s in the novel 219 times because oppressors
have to work hard to maintain a lie.

We then read Mark Twain’s painful and ultimately tragic depiction of the
power of American racism, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I am
ushering high school students out of their childhoods into our collective

We see Huck, after much struggle and careful tutoring on Jim’s part, decide
to defy his slave-holding culture rather than betray his friend Jim, now
recaptured at Phelps Plantation. When he rips up the note informing Miss
Watson of Jim’s whereabouts, and asserts, “all right, I’ll go to hell,” Huck
intends to free Jim as soon as he can. He doesn’t. Tom arrives, has plans
that preempt Jim’s immediate release. Jim becomes their plaything, a way to
act out their escape fantasies. Ultimately, despite Huck’s report to us of Jim’s
suffering, Huck can’t even tell Tom to go to hell. In the end we find that all
their efforts were for nothing. Tom knew Miss Watson had died, and freed
Jim. Huck is relieved his friend Tom was not a nigger-stealer. There’s no
anger from Huck towards Tom, that they’d almost gotten killed, that Jim had
been put through needless suffering. To see that Huck’s perception of Jim as
a human being had no consequence in Huck’s behavior breaks the heart.
Huck’s feelings for Jim are no match for the power of Huck’s racism. It’s a
novel with a very sad ending.

Twain put the book away, unfinished, in the 1870's, after the chapter where
Huck resolves to go to hell rather than betray his friend. Twain didn’t want to
publish it with that ending. It wasn’t published until the 1880's. What Twain
saw happening in that time was the abandonment of the cause of the freed
slaves by the victorious North. To read Huck Finn alongside Race and Reunion, The Civil War in American Memory, by David W. Blight; or The Day Freedom Died, The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction by Charles Lane; or Redemption, The Last Battle of the Civil War, by Nicholas Lemann makes it clear that Twain has Huck embody the
North’s retreat. The novel is a prescient depiction of the unfolding tragedy.

Union soldiers had gone into battle singing, “[Christ] died to make men holy,
let us die to make men free.” They indeed perished by the hundreds of
thousands. Yet the North pulled out their soldiers from the conquered South
in the 1870's and 1880's. This left the former slave masters to determine the
fate of their freed slaves. The militarily defeated Confederates established a
social and economic system of oppression that endured for 80 years, until
the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950-60's.

Many critics say Twain wrote a good book, except for those Phelps Plantation
Chapters. I’m with them. Better the feel-good ending, of the white boy, now
enlightened, rescuing his friend, than a truthful yet disturbing historical
metaphor. And let’s have Romeo and Juliet wake up, there in the tomb, and
laugh and embrace.

We’re talking about changing the word nigger for slave (that’s better? Less
difficult to explain to children?) because Twain’s novel about the enduring
power of racism still troubles our country. We’d like to protect children from
its power in our lives. Let’s do that completely. For the rest of us, Twain’s
masterpiece shows us how much work we’ve left to do.


  1. This is one of the most powerful explanations about Huck Finn as well as the use of the N word I have yet to see. Your father should have been interviewed for the news because his perspective was greatly missed in the debates I listened to on CNBC and other news outlets. It is often hard to teach children about painful subjects, especially because we'd like to protect them. But in the end such protection does more harm than good. Excellent post.

  2. Also, check out this Twain letter I just saw,:
    (was directed to from Michael Chabon's post at TNC blog):

    Here's the bulk of what he writes (go to the link for backstory):
    I wrote Tom Sawyer & Huck Finn for adults exclusively, & it always distressed me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean. I know this by my own experience, & to this day I cherish an unappeased bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and ever draw a clean sweet breath again on this side of the grave. Ask that young lady - she will tell you so.

  3. Great post. I saw it on Huffington and retweeted it from here. I waited for someone to say this.

  4. Thanks so much for reading, commenting, and sharing the post, Melissa. Much appreciated. Also, could you tell me where on Huffington you saw it--a comment thread maybe? Thanks!

  5. This way of interpreting Huckleberry Finn in terms of the defeat of Reconstruction can be found in a new book by Michael Gilmore, titled The War on Words: Slavery, Race, and Free Speech in American Literature, which sees the end of the novel quite the way Joe does.

  6. I think it has to do a lot with culture. I think is cool to teach huck finn in highschool because to be honest you are not "that innocent", adults forget the world we live in and how quickly kids grow up know (or maybe always, when they had to start hunting at 12 in the cavern-eras or girls getting merried at 13 in the medieval times, anyway...)
    I'm from mexico and in highschool we read lots of stuff about the conquest in Mexico and how spaniards use to be with native mexicans, it was exactly as white people with black slaves, but for some reason people never thing it is bad, it is just what happened and covering the truth or making in "softer" never cross ther mind.
    Indigenous women were rapped, men killed, children sold, etc...there was lot of abuse and ugly stuff...but well, now is different. It has always intrigue me how a novel such as Huck Finn, that is kind of hilarious and comic can be so controversial in your society. God, if you knew what we read...just check a little of Juan Rulfo. Unfortunately I never paid much attetntion to the authors of the books we read in school so I can't give you a list but maybe you can find some on the web.

    I hope all I've been saying makes a little bit of sense since english is not my first language, but the point is thar Huck is not as bad as someof americans see it.

    Cheers! btw I'm a fan of Twain xD


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