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Banned from the Classroom: A Rant about Mark Twain

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Banned from the Classroom: A Rant about Mark Twain

Post  TheDeadMan on Wed Apr 06, 2011 8:59 am

A couple of weeks ago, someone started a Forum about Mark Twain. This person stated that Mark Twain had an affair with his secretary in his old age, smoked cigars, and was a racist. When I saw that Twain was being called a racist, my hair stood on end. I wrote a comment, but somehow it did not get posted. By the next day, the Forum had disappeared.

Anyone who thinks Mark Twain was a racist either has not read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or is downright stupid. Twain was the antithesis of racist. The novel portrays the growing friendship between Huck, a young white boy, and Jim, a black slave. Both are runaways: Huck has faked his own death to escape the beatings of his drunken father; Jim has escaped to keep from being sold. Huck states more than once that even though it will mean going to Hell, he will not turn Jim in. Jim is an honorable, good-hearted man. The white men in the novel are, for the most part, scoundrels.

Does this sound racist? Perhaps, if Mark Twain were black. But he was white and living in the South during the time of the Civil War. Born Samuel L. Clemens in 1835 in Missouri, Mark Twain was able to go far beyond the conventional morality and prejudices of his generation. He is known as one of the greatest satirists ever.

Banning Huckleberry Finn

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, first published in 1884, was banned almost from the very start.. In 1885, after Concord Public Library banned the book, Mark Twain wrote, "They have expelled Huck from their library as 'trash and suitable only for the slums.' That will sell 25,000 copies for us sure." Twain started having the book sold from door to door and did quite well.

In 1902, the Brooklyn Public Library banned the book stating that "Huck not only itched but he scratched," and that he said "sweat" when he should have said "perspiration." (classiclit.about.com)

When a young supervisor wanted Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer removed from the children's section of her library because of their "coarseness, deceitfulness, and mischievous practices," Mark Twain wrote the following letter:


Nov. 21, '05.

Dear Sir:

I am greatly troubled by what you say. 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.

Most honestly do I wish I could say a softening word or two in defence of Huck's character, since you wish it, but really in my opinion it is no better than God's (in the Ahab & 97 others), & the rest of the sacred brotherhood.

If there is an Unexpurgated [Bible] in the Children's Department, won't you please help that young woman remove Tom & Huck from that questionable companionship?

Sincerely yours,
S. L. Clemens (twainquotes.com/1935) New York Times, Nov.2, 1935



Recent Banning

While I can smile at the old censorship of Huck Finn, I get infuriated at "modern" readers who want to ban the book before even reading it. They do not bother to look at the historical background. They simply look at the "N" word and assume the book is racist.

In Renton, Washington, in 2003, a 16-year-old complained about reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because she objected to the word "nigger." Her grandmother got involved. Even though the student was allowed to read another book and stay in study hall during the teaching of Huck, the two launched a campaign to have the book removed from the curriculum for the entire district.

Perhaps I am wrong, but I believe neither of them read the book. They based their decisions on the pre-reading lessons by the teacher, who was trying to prevent controversy by discussing the "N" word before teaching the actual book. The grandmother objected because the "N" word had been said 215 times! This alone indicates -- to me, at least -- that she was counting the "N" word, not reading the novel.

Huck Finn is one of the most frequently banned books in public schools and libraries in the U.S. I think it is a travesty set in motion by weak-minded individuals who have no understanding of literature or history.

Summary

I thought I had so much more to say, but then I found this quote that says it much better than I could.

This review is from: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Konemann Classics) (Hardcover) Okay, we all know the plot, so there's no sense in rehashing it; but this book has generated a great deal of heat and very little light lately, it's been banned in some school districts and attacked as racist garbage, so this review will address the question: Is "Huckleberry Finn", in fact, a racist book?
The charge of racism stems from the liberal use of the N word in describing Jim. Some black parents and students have charged that the book is humiliating and demeaning to African-Americans and therefore is unfit to be taught in school. If there has been a racist backlash in the classroom, I think it is the fault of the readers rather than the book.

"Huckleberry Finn" is set in Missouri in the 1830's and it is true to its time. The narrator is a 13 year old, semi-literate boy who refers to blacks by the N-word because he has never heard them called anything else. He's been brought up to see blacks as slaves, as property, as something less than human. He gets to know Jim on their flight to freedom (Jim escaping slavery and Huck escaping his drunken, abusive father), and is transformed. Huck realizes that Jim is just as human as he is, a loving father who misses his children, a warm, sensitive, generous, compassionate individual. Huck's epiphany arrives when he has to make a decision whether or not to rescue Jim when he is captured and held for return to slavery. In the culture he was born into, stealing a slave is the lowest of crimes and the perpetrator is condemned to eternal damnation. By his decision to risk hell to save Jim, he saves his own soul. Huck has risen above his upbringing to see Jim as a friend, a man, and a fellow human being.

Another charge of racism is based on Twain's supposed stereotyping of Jim. As portrayed by Twain, Jim is hardly the ignorant, shuffling Uncle Tom that was so prevalent in "Gone With the Wind" (a book that abundantly deserves the charge of racism). Jim may be uneducated, but he is nobody's fool; and his dignity and nobility in the face of adversity is evident throughout the book.

So -- is "Huckleberry Finn" a racist book? No. It's of its time and for its time and ours as well, portraying a black man with sensitivity, dignity, and sympathy. If shallow, ignorant readers see Jim as a caricature and an object of derision, that's their problem. Hopefully they may mature enough in their lifetime to appreciate this book as one of the greatest classics of American literature.


And for those who might be wondering -- this reviewer is black.


Afterthoughts

What does smoking cigars have to do with anything? Or having an affair with one's secretary?

On Netflix you can order several different versions of the Huck Finn movie as well as Hal Holbrook's Mark Twain Tonight. Holbrook is great as Mark Twain!

You can also find excerpts on youtube.

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