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The Subversive from Hannibal

My latest at Eclectica:

Mark Twain by Abdullah Frères, 1867

.”..This is moral sedition on Twain’s part. If you are of the book-banning type, you should ban and/or burn this one for portraying Huck as a hero not because of what he does but for how he arrives at his decision to do it. We can agree (most of us, at least, with the luxury of hindsight and a different morality) that slavery was a terrible evil and anyone who opposed it was virtuous, whatever the law said. But how many of us feel comfortable with the author’s undermining the dependability of the human conscience to determine right from wrong? Is it possible conscience can be mistaken? How can we tell when the “little voice inside our head” is telling us the will of God and when it is just parroting the fickle morality of the society we happen to be born into? That’s a can of worms we don’t want to open in or outside a classroom….” Read the essay.

Ban the N-Word?

Easily the most accessed post on this blog over the past year has been “BAN HUCKLEBERRY FINN (AGAIN)!” Most of the hits have come by way of Google, enough so that the link there to this blog posting 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 posting they may be exposed to a different take on the novel, expressed as mock outrage: that Huckleberry Huckleberry_Finn_bookFinn should be banned not because it’s use of an offensive word but because it preaches moral and social sedition. And, who knows? They 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 now 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: “The 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% of what we eat) on anything more than recycling someone else’s thoughts. Never mind what I 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 (it wasn’t until my third reading that I saw the bombshells I mentioned above, so color me dim), in the original. And, then, “discuss.”

(For my thoughts on the issue of African American exclusion from the economic and social mainstream of American life — largely due to policies put in place by so-called liberal 20th-century administrations — I invite you to have a look at:

Speak for Yourself, White Man

I heard a commentator this morning on a local radio station complaining about the PC people who object to the use of Indian names for sports franchises, such as the Washington Redskins. He says, nobody bitches about “The Fightin’ Irish,” do they?

I suppose he wouldn’t mind teams named the Savannah Shines, the Chattanooga Chinks, the Columbus Kikes, Waco Wetbacks and, just to bring things up to date, the Rehoboth Ragheads.

Also, I suspect it was Irish Americans who predominated on the rosters of the Notre Dame teams that originally got called the Fightin’ Irish. How many Indians have played for the Cleveland Indians or Washington Redskins  or Boston/Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves or any of the many other sports teams that have adopted names of Indian tribes (the commentator’s complaint was occasioned by the recent dropping of the name “Fighting Sioux” by the University of North Dakota)?

I hasten to add, this comment was made over the airwaves of New York City, supposedly a bastion of liberal sensibility (don’t you believe it). Would we be as PC if it wasn’t socially unacceptable to express our prejudices (and rank ignorance) openly? Are we so much less tribal than we were fifty years ago? Some of the young are, I think, because they have actually grown up among people of different backgrounds, but I continue to marvel at what comes out of my friends’ and neighbors mouths’ when they are speaking unguardedly (as well as the prejudice I still harbor myself despite what I think and feel consciously).

A good reason to read the literature of the past, if you need one, is the way it gives us a social snapshot of the time in which it was written. Mark Twain was sympathetic to Afro-Americans but despised, absolutely hated, Indians. That apparently passed for PC at the time (see Roosevelt, Theodore). Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now is rife with anti-Semitism, some of it the author’s, but the characters manage to escape Trollope’s prejudices, with a couple of the Jewish ones ending up the most sympathetic, even tragic. If this were a German novel of its time, no one would have to wonder how the Nazis managed to do what they did.

That’s why Trollope is a great writer: the artist, not the man, is in control. You can watch him rev up his contempt for Jews, just as you can watch him try to talk the reader into believing that a particular character (I’m thinking of the “she-cat” American “witch” who follows her British lover to England to try to talk him out of reneging on his proposal of marriage) is loathsome for other reasons. In most cases, though, when the characters actually walk on stage we take their side, not Trollope’s (no, he’s not playing devil’s advocate, though he might possibly be dissembling). Lesser writers can not let down their guard like that, allow the inner man or woman to take over despite what they believe consciously.

Maybe I should send that radio commentator a copy of…but what is the great American Indian novel? The Invisible Man of the indigenous peoples. If it exists, shouldn’t I know it? And, if it exists, doesn’t the fact that I don’t know it mean that it has been suppressed or at least marginalized? No doubt someone reading this can recommend a great but obscure classic. But, why obscure? For all our denial and dithering about slavery and its consequences, we have not only Ellison’s book but plenty of others, including that original blockbuster of white guilt Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Isn’t it odd that our Original Sin should remain so undocumented–unless you count all those cowboys-and-Indians films and pulp fiction by Zane Grey and his descendants, which are hardly what I have in mind?

No wonder that commentator could say what he did with such righteousness. To him Indians are just those guys who scalped beautiful women and burned honest settlers’ homesteads. And then lost to John Wayne and Alan Ladd. Anyway, in the spirit of equal time and equal opportunity, my entry for the PC-free team name is–are you ready?–the Bronx Bigots.


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 that 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, 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, 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.

(For my thoughts on reactions to this piece, I invite you to read the follow-up I wrote to it called “Ban the N-Word?”)

(For my thoughts on the issue of African American exclusion from the economic and social mainstream of American life — largely due to policies put in place by so-called liberal 20th-century administrations — I invite you to have a look at: