Even when the writer isn’t Mark Twain, changing someone’s words is tricky business. I’ve always said the best editors are the ones who are so subtle that you can’t tell what they change in your copy, and yet your piece is better. So, when considering the new version of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” that eliminates the prodigious use of the “n-word” throughout the novel, there are two big problems out of the gate: One, if we can agree that Twain is an American literary treasure, it’s probably no one’s business to give his work what’s referred to as a “heavy edit.” And two, the man’s dead. Game over. If he’s not part of the discussion (and he’d want to be), it’s cheating to have it.
That said, Twain and his work are part of our nation’s living culture (the story was even covered by Entertainment Weekly) and there are bigger issues at play here than simple editing ethics. One is straight-up censorship. The other is laziness regarding our relationship with young adults – the target group for the two options being offered here: The reworking of Twain’s text for “innocent eyes” or kicking the book upstairs to only be taught at the college level (proposed by Lorrie Moore last weekend in her NYT op-ed, “Send Huck Finn to College”). Both impulses are well-meaning, but are wrongheaded disservices to our youth and ourselves.
Regarding censorship, taking shots at book banning is easy when the would-be banners are reactionary thugs concerned with thought-policing our culture by ensuring that so called subversive reads (from “Catcher in the Rye,” to “Lolita,” to “The Communist Manifesto”) remain unavailable. Taking on attacks by science deniers and bible thumpers that would cut us off access to scientific facts is also a no-brainer bailiwick for anti-censorship types. (A friend who works in publishing recently showed me an excerpt from a faith-based children’s science textbook used for Darwin-free schooling. Oh dear.)
But it’s a lot more difficult when attempts at information control come from those concerned with issues having to do civil rights, be they about race or sex. (I’m recalling now a professor who once hurled a copy of Homer’s “Odyssey” across a college freshman classroom, symbolically excommunicating it from the canon because of its hideous maleness. This same person later refused to be a reader on my thesis on Kerouac. Doing so would be playing a role in legitimizing what she said was his texts’ misogyny.) The “Huck Finn” controversy is a tough one, to be sure. I cringe when I read the n-word in the novel today as an adult, just as I did when I was young. Likewise, as a Jew, Ernest Hemingway’s great “The Sun Also Rises” has always provoked winces at certain ugliness. I do understand the instinct to get the word out of the classroom. (The term “injun,” it should be noted, is also dispensed with in the new edition.)
But I turn to Katie, the teen liaison at the local library who’s completing her master’s degree in library science with a focus on Young Adults. Katie’s an old-school liberal, feminist, anti-sexism and anti-racism, solid citizen of the best sort. Here’s an excerpt from a paper she recently wrote about a decision she made that she thought was best for young girls:
“I recalled my decision to remove a popular magazine, Seventeen, from [the local library’s] Young Adult collection and replace it with another publication. As I made that decision, I was aware that I was wielding control in an undemocratic way, but I didn’t see my actions as “censorship.”… I was in denial about my act of censorship because I thought I was right. … [But] It didn’t matter that I had a litany of ‘good’ reasons for wanting the magazine removed – I was putting my personal opinion ahead of patrons’ wants and needs. That prioritization is never acceptable and is in direct conflict with my personal philosophy of affording information access. … I saw how, on a practical level, I must be ready to defend access to material I personally find abhorrent. This is my duty as a librarian and a youth advocate.”
This is the type of (sometimes counterintuitive) vigilance we must display to make sure high school students have access to work that, like “Huck Finn,” some of us might find distasteful. I know we’re talking about curriculum here and not a teen magazine – but we’re also not talking about Nazi propaganda. Keep in mind young adults’ access to material is consistently under attack and it is specifically here that we need be on guard to defend our rights to information. Most efforts to ban books are focused on this part of the society’s population under the guise of protecting innocence.
The second option, being floated by Moore and others, is that we suspend teaching the book until college and adulthood. “The remedy,” she says, “is to refuse to teach this novel in high school and to wait until college – or even graduate school – where it can be put in proper context.”
Refuse? This is an example of the laziness of our approach not only to engaging and teaching this age group, but also to understanding and respecting their cognitive sophistication, and to owning up to the sometimes uncomfortable world in which they live and form opinions. Until graduate school? What does that say about ourselves as adults and our ability to think and learn?
No one would advocate handing material on complex subject matter to young students without teaching it. Try this on: Material regarding safe sex has unsettling terms and concepts that teenagers can’t “get” on their own. Best not to teach it. Doing so might create a (gasp!) uncomfortable classroom situation. Come on, people. Our job is to teach our children – to offer them context. This is not always a comfortable task – for them or us. In this case, we’re talking about our nation’s legacy of slavery, racism, judgment and hatred. The notion that high school kids aren’t ready for important subject matter is really an indictment of our own lack of creativity, if not indifference. And for those teachers who are (so unfortunately) intimidated by these ideas, there are myriad aides especially designed to teach this book and the controversies it elicits. Go ahead, type it in: “Twain Finn Teaching Controversy Lesson Plans.” A child can do it.
As parents and teachers, we do have to make some choices about material that is and isn’t appropriate to teach young people. No one’s saying that “Tropic of Cancer” or “Lolita” should be part of standard high-school curriculum. But these books are not “Huck Finn,” and regardless, if kids are reading them, we best should be ready to teach them. Tossing them under the rug and saying “see you in college” is simply irresponsible.
If we want our kids to grow up to be conscious adults, we have to teach consciousness in dynamic and intelligent ways. We can reopen the arguments around what Twain was trying to accomplish in his great work, why he chose the terms he did and his possible motivations (good or bad) behind their use. But I’m going to leave that to the thousands of teachers who have successfully taught the book and the millions of high school students who have read it, were taught it and learned great lessons about our culture and compassion from Twain’s masterpiece.