Published on this date – in 1885 – Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Poor Huck. His mom dies, his monstrous father beats him, school sucks and church is worse, the Widow Douglas expects a whole lot of sivilizin’ for three hots and a cot, and his only real friend (Tom Sawyer) never gets in trouble and gets all the great girls. Well, the town’s one great girl, anyway: Becky Thatcher. And then, when Huck finally has some adventures of his own, which he tells about in his own barely-literate 14-year-old voice, the whole damn world – starting with Mark Twain’s wife, who hated Huck’s guts – jumps down his throat and tells him he’s done a bunch of stuff wrong.
Most books just commit one sin in the eye of a single, fairly predictable beholder (e.g., Ulysses is “obscene” if you’re uncomfortable with English as spoken and with sex being spoken of at all; 1984 is politically incorrect if your politics happen to be Soviet; Oliver Twist fails to provide a positive Jewish role model with the character of Fagin). But Mark Twain’s masterpiece managed to commit a multitude of sins and keeps on committing new ones. It has been reviled in more quarters – and banned for more varied reasons – than just about any book in the history of world literature. Which, in my opinion, is one measure of its value. It takes a truly great book to piss that many different people off.
Mark Twain’s wife found Huckleberry Finn vulgar and urged Twain to make radical changes, some of which he made. Reviewers at the time objected to the novel’s language – Huck’s first-person vernacular language – as ill-suited to respectable literature. Church folk in the world at large (just as in Finn’s home town) considered the trash-talking, pipe-smoking, shoe-hating, not-always-freshly-bathed Huck a bad example for other boys. They still do. Teachers hated Huck’s poor grammar and questionable word choice. And virulent racists and fans of the recently defeated Confederacy (the Civil War had only ended twenty years prior) hated the book for obvious reasons. And agreed with Huck Finn himself that he would go to Hell for helping Jim escape slavery.
Before I proceed further, let me say a few words about book banners. I’m agin’ ’em. I spit in their eye. I’d invite ’em – if I thought they was worth the trouble of turnin’ around and bendin’ over – to kiss my ass. Any questions?
In recent years, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been most often attacked – and banned – because of charges of racism and because Huck and some of the other characters (but mostly Huck) use the “N word” a total of 210 times. A bowdlerized edition of the book has been published that replaces the N word with “slave” and changes the two instances of “Injun” to Indian. Presumably so that it can be read by young children.
Part of Twain’s genius was to present the book as a boy’s adventure (a companion to his first Tom Sawyer book). And to have a boy narrate it. If a 14-year-old without a family to speak of, no use for religion, and little education can figure out that slavery is wrong – and find the courage to do something about it – what the hell happened to the rest of us?
Huckleberry Finn is racist in spots – so is Uncle Tom’s Cabin – at least by contemporary standards. (Despite both books’ good intentions.) And it is not a book for children. In my opinion, Mark Twain’s finest work (and one of the greatest, most important works of American literature) should not be read until high school. By students a little older than Huck. At which time it should be read as written and in its entirety. If you’re old enough to learn about the horrors of slavery, you’re old enough and sophisticated enough to read the language of its day. Words don’t hurt nearly as much as bull whips, being separated from your family, being sold at auction, and never breathing a free breath as long as you live.