Chabon-Inspired Stray Thoughts on Huck Finn
I know, I know. You thought you were done with that whole Huck Finn controversy. But for a final word — and, in its way, maybe the truest — you should take a look at Michael Chabon’s thoughts. (But read this first, before you quit on the whole subject.)
1) From an academic perspective, and from a reader’s perspective, I’m still rather surprised that a censored edition was put out. Grown-ups out to be able to deal with the word; high school and college students should be capable of learning about the uglier parts of their past, in all their linguistic detail. But as a children’s tale? You can see how this gets more complicated. If a young child is going to have to encounter — by reading or hearing — the word “nigger” with that frequency, there is, essentially, a talk required beforehand. Even cutting it out, as Chabon notes, requires that talk if you’re not out to gut the novel. Perhaps this new version should have been called the “Children’s Edition” and come with a parent’s guide? (In place of those annoying “reader’s guide” or “10 question” things that some publishers have taken to shoving in the back of books.)
2) The problem of reading “nigger” aloud rather than to oneself. The vitriol of the word’s history somehow seems more immanent when it is spoken. Or perhaps it can feel like the speaker is implicated by the word in a way that the reader is not. I don’t balk at seeing the word in print, but I do flinch if a situation requests I read it aloud. In high school, the printed word was not what required a class discussion of “nigger” and decorum, but its presence in passages we read aloud. We were told to read it, unless it made us genuinely uncomfortable to do so. I believe almost, if not all of us, did read it: but our voices were hesitant.
By now, of course, an academic setting is one in which I understand there is no need to fear reading “nigger” aloud — but I can’t say there isn’t something at the back of my mind if/when the text and situation call for it. It’s easy to try to avoid: start or stop the quotation with dexterity, if possible; paraphrase; or, as one class (reading Faulkner) was apt to do, sort of hum out a an “N” sound followed by a beat-long pause. The latter was the most awkward — in some ways more so than the actual speaking of the word that eventually followed.
But why the difference between reading and speaking, even if the context is the same? Why the hesitancy toward — or even fear of — the latter? I’ll be brief, for fear of being accused of masquerading as either a linguist or a Kabbalist: I think it has something to do with the reasons that even the ostensibly “silent” prayers of a Jewish service are spoken aloud; that this whole-person participation, in the case of “nigger” transforms into a kind of whole-person implication.