Chabon-Inspired Stray Thoughts on Huck Finn

J.L. Wall

J.L. Wall is a native Kentuckian in self-imposed exile to the Midwest, where he teaches writing to college students and over-analyzes Leonard Cohen lyrics.

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18 Responses

  1. E.C. Gach says:

    Interesting post and I think it explores a key point: speaking it vs. reading it.

    There is almost something confessional in the reading aloud of it. Confessions don’t work if they are silent and have to be spoken by the individual (excluding fraudulently obtained confessions). No one can confess on your behalf, and the speaking aloud definitely does something to implicate oneself directly in the historical moment rather than being a passive observer.Report

  2. North says:

    Every time I think about the idea of rewriting Twain to remove that word I laugh. Then a remember that it actually happened and I feel kind of ill. Surely we have better things to do?Report

  3. DensityDuck says:

    I think it has more to do with the uncontrolled nature of speech. If I read a word to myself, then I’m the only one that experiences it, and I can completely control that experience. Nobody is going to simultaneously experience my reading that word (well, unless they’re reading over my shoulder or something.)

    But if I say the word, then other people might not share the context in which I am experiencing it. That is, someone walking by in the hallway might hear “NIGGER!” followed by a nervous giggle. They wouldn’t necessarily interpret it as “this person is reading aloud from Huckleberry Finn and not speaking to me specifically, or to any person.”Report

  4. BSK says:

    I think it has to do with active vs passive involvement. If I read it, it is only because someone else wrote it down. I have no complicity in the act. If I read it, then I’ve spoken it, and now have some active involvement in its usage. We can control what we say; we can’t entirely control what we read/see. If I walk down the street and see it spray painted on a wall, I can’t really help but read it, even if I catch only a fleeting glance before I realize what I’m doing. But I can certainly decide whether or not I say it.

    Does this mean that there is an actual difference? Or is this more of a Pavlovian response… saying it = bad, ergo, I won’t say it or, if I do, I’ll feel some sort of awkwardness, regardless of the intention.

    FWIW, my understanding is this isn’t the first time such work has been censored or otherwise sanitized. Lots of children’s books get paint jobs to add “diversity”. Basal readers are notorious for heavy editing, sometimes for brevity, but also for content at times.Report

    • BSK in reply to BSK says:

      “And let’s remember, tinkering with a classic text is hardly a new idea, nor is it usually done with as much delicacy and careful consideration. There are dozens of abridged “young reader” versions of Huck Finn in print that hack huge portions out of the text and also clean up or dumb down the language. There are numerous graphic novel versions. These are commonly used in classrooms without generating national headlines, and take much greater liberties with Twain’s story for worse reasons.
      If we want to get upset about altering the author’s text, let’s start by throwing out those dreadful basal readers that offer only carefully abridged, carefully sanitized snippets from novels. Let’s ask students to read actual novels instead. And don’t get me started on the movie versions of novels that are frequently screened in the classroom to ‘supplement’ the unit. Talk about mangling the author’s intent. Watch any of the abominable film adaptations of Huck Finn and you’ll see what I mean. Compared to these things we let pass as educationally appropriate in the classroom, an optional version of Huck Finn that changes two racial epithets isn’t something I can get very angry about.”

      • Lyle in reply to BSK says:

        Yes indeed I recall hearing when in school 40 years ago that Huck had “cleaned up versions” and many schools would not use it back then. So its not new to clean up Twain , maybe just the choice of bad words. Let alone expose children to the Man who Corrupted Hadleyberg, or the story about the baptist and methodist who had a battle killed each other off and there by referred the dispute to a higher court. Clemons in later life was not acceptable in the 1960s and indeed the family censored some works for a while due to his viewsReport

        • Pierre Corneille in reply to Lyle says:

          My niece’s almost all-white, suburban elementary school was “Mark Twain Elementary,” named, no doubt, with the image of frolicking boys going fishing and getting in adventures in mind. I’ve often wondered how many parents caught on to the fact that Twain/Clemmons was such a trenchant critic not only of slavery and racism, but of much of what people today (and, I presume, many of the parents at this school) still hold dear.Report

    • DensityDuck in reply to BSK says:

      “If I walk down the street and see it spray painted on a wall, I can’t really help but read it, even if I catch only a fleeting glance before I realize what I’m doing.”

      Sounds like Catcher In The Rye, and Holden talking about writing “FUCK YOU” on things.Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to BSK says:

      I agree with what you’re saying here. It’s hard to actually say something aloud and not think of it as a personal expression. On a tangentally related note, I wondered for a long time if religious people considered acting to be lying, since you’re literally speaking unthuths and finally found that, yes, at one point it was understood by Christians that actors are liars, which I found quite interesting and plausible. This was a while ago, but the point is that it’s very hard to say something alound and have the words remain impersonal.Report

  5. Matt says:

    It’s possible that, as a non-teacher, I lack the standing required to make the following point, but nevertheless I am convinced of it:

    This censored edition is designed to cover for the weaknesses of bad teachers.

    A good teacher, a teacher who commands the respect of their students, honors and appreciates good literature, and holds themself apart from racial hatred, will have no problem leading a constructive discussion about Huck Finn, even in a racially contentious environment. The job of a teacher is to communicate not only facts, but also attitudes. To put a finer point on it, a teacher’s task is not only to pass along facts, but also to model the sort of attitudes that the school (whether it be governmental or parochial) wishes to see emulated. If this second facet of the task is being taken seriously and handled competently, the sort of problems that the expurgated version is attempting to prevent would not occur.Report

    • BSK in reply to Matt says:


      I’m a teacher (hopefully a good one), and I think you make a great point. There are a lot of bad teachers who are overly reliant on tools to cover up for their weaknesses.

      One thing I do think is worth considering is whether or not there is any type of psychological impact on students (students of color in particular) to hearing/seeing that word. I work with much younger students, so I don’t know enough about the psyche of high school students to venture a guess. But I do think that, if this word is going to have a presence in the class, particularly vocally, consideration should be given as to whether this creates an unsafe space for students. I’m not just speaking about discomfort, since I think we should be encouraged to lean into discomfort to truly make gains; I’m speaking about genuine emotional or psychological damage.

      I do realize an easy response to this is to simply point to all the instances of derivatives of the n-word appearing in black culture. I’d respond that my guess is there is a major difference between hearing a fellow black person use it that way and hearing a white classmate read it aloud as it is written in the book. I’m not necessarily saying that the former is okay and the latter is not; just that they are different. I think the conversation as to whether or not black people ought to use the word or its derivatives is one that should be had by that community. I don’t think it is my place to tell them whether or not they should say it. But I do think it is fair to follow their lead on whether I, as a white person, should ever say it.Report

      • BSK in reply to BSK says:

        *To clarify that last point, I’m not necessarily saying that I will cater to any individual or group’s feeling on any single word. But I will attempt to respect the wishes of people or individuals and avoid offending them if it’s not entirely necessary (and, yes, sometimes it is necessary to offend someone).Report

      • Pierre Corneille in reply to BSK says:

        I do realize an easy response to this is to simply point to all the instances of derivatives of the n-word appearing in black culture. I’d respond that my guess is there is a major difference between hearing a fellow black person use it that way and hearing a white classmate read it aloud as it is written in the book. I’m not necessarily saying that the former is okay and the latter is not; just that they are different.

        I tend to agree. I get persnickety when I hear people complain that some black people sometimes use the n-word without noting that the circumstances of this use are at least different from when white people might use it. (Sorry about the dangling participle.) Pointing out the different circumstances, of course, does not necessarily justify using the word.Report

    • Scott in reply to Matt says:


      Sorry, I must disagree. The censorship, IMHO isn’t designed to cover for the weaknesses of bad teachers, it is designed to satisfy the politically correct losers who are so afraid of offending folks or having to discuss difficult issues. It is just one more step on the road to idiocracy.Report

  6. trizzlor says:

    Yes, reading it aloud is the whole thing, and as has been pointed out elsewhere, telling a class full of black kids that they should just deal with the word and that it’s part of their history is easier said then done.

    I too remember reading Huck Finn aloud as a terrible experience: I myself had no racial animus and yet I was being forced into the voice of a character who did. Moreover, as someone who had recently emigrated to the US, I had the distinct feeling of having to atone for sins that I felt were not my own.Report

    • Just John in reply to trizzlor says:

      The word “nigger” is not just part of black history, it’s part of white history too. Everyone suffers for sins that were not their own, sins that were committed long ago. Do we learn more about the white Southern heritage from Margaret Mitchell or from William Faulkner?

      “Slave” is not synonymous with “nigger”. “Slave” denotes a station in life; a slave can be freed and be no longer a slave. A freed black person was still a nigger, to be shamed and excluded from privilege based on birth, not merit of any kind. White people can’t comfortably say “nigger” because to say it forces awareness that the word still has currency, though happily most white Americans are now reflexively ashamed of that currency.

      To avoid the word is to avoid the work that still needs to be done. That work can’t be done all the time, and because there has been some progress it’s not as urgent as it once was, so it’s fine and well to avoid the word in conversation and general parlance. But to avoid it in a work of art whose very purpose is to show the necessity of that work — and to do some of it — among other critical work of the same ilk — is something like saying, “I know him not.”

      Preachy, I know. That’s why I generally avoid using the N-word.Report

  7. BSK says:

    I just started listening to the Harry Potter books on CD, after having read the first 4 (Jim Dale is amazing, by the way). In addition to the difference between reading/speaking the word, I’m also now appreciating the difference between reading and hearing. I am having a much different response to the book and, more specifically, the language now that I’m listening to it. It just resonates a different way. So I think there is also the possibility for a different impact on those who are hearing the word as opposed to just reading it.Report