|Cartoon by John Sherffius, 01/06/2011|
The news came out the first week in January of a revised edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain. The work is apparently spearheaded by a professor from Auburn University, which is just down the road from my Alabama hometown. As one who loves literature, especially the works of Samuel Clemens, I found this to be most disheartening news. There have been stories in the past of schools banning Twain’s masterpiece from libraries and curriculum due to the offensive use of the “N” word. There is frequent use of the word as the author writes in the colloquial speech of his day, and of course, prominent to the story is Nigger Jim, the runaway slave who travels down the Mississippi River with young Huck. The reality is that Mark Twain does more than anyone of his generation to illustrate the humanity of Americans of African descent, and to show the inhumanity of a culture that enslaved black people while using Bible verses to justify such enslavement.
Sometimes we educated folk can get so caught up in political correctness that we end up missing the point entirely, living in a dull, flat landscape, so to speak. It reminds me of something Will Campbell relates in his acclaimed memoir, Brother to a Dragonfly. Campbell tells of a salty Baptist preacher, Brother Thad Garner, he knew in the Deep South. One of his stories is about how Brother Garner used his influence in the local Lion’s Club to make them aware that it was wrong to support a bond issue for a swimming pool in their town when earlier a bond had been defeated that would have provided running water for those living in the Black community (who were having to draw water from a single well). This was a decade prior to the civil rights movement. Brother Thad had first warmed up the crowd with some jokes, including one about an “ole colored preacher.” After the meeting, Will chided his friend for telling “ole colored preacher" jokes. To which his friend Thad replied:
“That’s the trouble with you shithook liberals, Willie. You had rather see a hundred children die of dehydration than to have the sound of ‘nigger’ heard from your lips. Whether I say ‘nigger’ don’t matter a damn. If one of those young’uns die of thirst he ain’t nothing. Just one more dead nigger, whether I say the word or not, or whether I go to Hell for saying it or not. But if he lives to get grown, maybe he can lead his people out of this godawful Egypt and there won’t be no more niggers."
If this new version will get Huckleberry Finn back on the reading list in schools, maybe it has some merit. Better yet – perhaps it will call attention to the work to spur readers to go and find the original version. Mark Twain does have another book, his autobiography, which is currently making the best seller list. A Mark Twain renaissance might not be so bad.
What? Try to make Mark Twain inoffensive? What good is that? Mark Twain had a uncanny ability to make people lighten up and get serious at the same time. He was a writer of great humor and wit and he had a way of exposing human behavior for what it is. He didn't mind offending, especially the social elite, the religiously proper, the haughty and the proud.
I could go on, but I don’t think anyone could do better than columnist Leonard Pitts, of the Miami Herald. In his column on January 9 he writes, "Huck Finn is a funny, subversive story about a runaway white boy who comes to locate the humanity in a runaway black man and, in the process, vindicates his own. It has always, until now, been regarded as a timeless tale." You can read the entire column here (which I highly recommend).
Update and correction: A friend has corrected me that Twain scholar Alan Gribben, who has published the new Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (NewSouth Books), is professor at Auburn University at Montgomery. My friend is librarian at AUM and tells me that the book is a huge buzz over there and is having tremendous sales.
Brother to a Dragonfly, by Will D. Campbell, 1977. Continuum: New York, pp. 175-176.
John Sherrifus Editorial Cartoons, http://www.sherffius.com/
March 25 addendum:
The following was aired on CBS's 60 Minutes program on March 18. You can hear some interesting comments about the new version of Hickleberry Finn. The editor at NewSouth Books is among those interviewed :