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Bowdlerization of Huck Finn and the Loss of our Heritage

2011 January 7
by rahul

So an Alabama publisher named New South Books is putting out a bowdlerized edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with the word “nigger” replaced by “slave,” at the initiative of an Auburn English professor. The overwhelming response has been negative, both from writers like Times book critic Michiko Kakutani and Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates and from apparently an avalanche of callers and letter-writers. My opinion on it is not novel: it’s a terrible thing, both because it whitewashes an important document of the past and because it disrespects the author, who cannot defend his work any longer. But I think there are more interesting things to say as well.

Kakutani links to a column last year in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer by a high school teacher who argues that Huck has to go, along with To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men. He personally loves the books and recognizes their significance, but then says:

But they don’t belong on the curriculum. Not anymore. Those books are old, and we’re ready for new.

Even if Huck Finn didn’t contain the N-word and demeaning stereotypes, it would remain a tough sell to students accustomed to fast-paced everything. The novel meanders along slower than the Mississippi River and uses a Southern dialect every bit as challenging as Shakespeare’s Old English.

I am quite sympathetic to this. Beowulf is an important document, but there is no reason for kids to read it. Works can become too dated to be worth reading. And Huck Finn (much more than the other two) is getting pretty dated. I think it’s a great book, but it’s incredibly dull for a high-school kid to read (except for a handful of passages, which are hilarious), and the last third of the book is a pointless detour that makes a farce out of all of Huck’s hard-won moral insight.

That said, there is a lot that we lose when such works are removed from our consciousness. I recently read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, perhaps the paradigmatic example of a book that everyone’s heard of but nobody actually reads. It is virtually unreadable for a modern person (I made a foray into it several years ago and couldn’t take it). It is a seething stew of mawkish sentimentality, crippling paternalism, nauseatingly offensive caricatures of black people, and characters and plot elements selected solely to make a point.

It introduces the Victorian cliche of the sweet angelic child (golden-haired, naturally) who is “too good for this earth” and is called to heaven with a beatified countenance as scores of worshipful slaves look on. And most excruciatingly it is essentially a book-length Christian tract, full of constant Biblical quotations, talk about heaven, talk about how important it is to be Christian, conversion of heathen slaves, and so on. The majority of the characters act as if they believe Heaven is real, which already makes much of the action unintelligible for anyone from Richard Dawkins to Franklin Graham.

The word “nigger” appears frequently, and there are numerous passages that would make anyone of any race this side of Rep. Steve King of Iowa cringe.

And yet withal it is a remarkable, powerful, and moving work. It jerked tears out of the British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston and out of this humble writer as well.

Despite her wallowing in sentimentality, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s analysis of the political situation of the slave and the culture of the country is remarkably astute. One of the characters, Ophelia St. Clare, is a puritanically correct northern Methodist abolitionist who abominates slavery, but she also can’t bear people of African descent and when she is made to raise a little black girl, Topsy, cannot touch her without revulsion. The noble-minded but indolent and accommodationist Southern planter Augustin St. Clare, contemplates freeing his slaves after his daughter’s death (she of the golden hair), but says to his cousin that freed slaves must live in the north if they are to learn the virtues of the Protestant ethic and he knows that northerners will not accept their living there. This point was made by Alexis de Tocqueville 17 years earlier in Democracy in America, where he says that blacks in America are doomed to slavery or to a war of extinction with whites, except on the slim chance that their freedom comes at the same time as the sectional conflict between North and South breaks into war.

So well did Stowe understand this point that she was careful to make all the important surviving black characters spend their lives in Africa. She was also very careful to make no black raise a hand of violence against a white, because, although it is very disappointing to most of us today, she knew that it would vitiate all of the good she was hoping to do with the book.

And good it did do. Even before the Civil War, it sold half a million copies in the United States and Britain, and afterward became the most widely read novel in American history. It changed people’s minds and it changed people’s hearts.

Reading the book, and thinking about how it was tailored to appeal to its target audience, teaches one a great deal, not just about the America of the time, but about today as well. Uncle Tom was not intended to be an “Uncle Tom” — he was a Christ-figure, or at least an heir to the long and storied tradition of Christian martyrdom (although near the end, he does say, “Into thy hands I commend my spirit”). He was always humble and obedient, and never raised his voice to anyone, not primarily because this was supposed to be a particular virtue of a slave but in the same way that the Pope washes people’s feet. He is very far from weak. He refuses to whip a slave, even though he knows it may mean his death; later, he bears up under torture without giving up an escapee’s secrets. His steadfastness and courage convert even the two brutal men (both black) who actually beat him at Simon Legree’s behest, and a horde of other slaves who had never before heard the good news.

But now we can’t understand that kind of hero. It makes no sense to us. If you’re mild and obedient and don’t even resist death, that means you’re weak or stupid. And so we have to see Uncle Tom as an “Uncle Tom,” even when we don’t really know the story (this impression was originally created by the many minstrel-show reenactments of the story, many of which were pro-slavery and showed Uncle Tom as a cringing whiner).

The book also inaugurated a genre, the Victorian woman’s reform novel. Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, about the treatment of horses and other animals, and Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona, about American Indians in the West and Southwest, were exemplars. Sewell’s book caused major changes in British laws regarding animal treatment; Jackson’s, sadly, came too late to do much good, as the genocide was nearly complete.

George Orwell had a rather interesting theory about literary criticism. Basically, he thought the test of a work’s merit was whether it stood the test of time. This idea has a lot going for it, but he reckoned without the educational system’s institutionalization of certain works and exclusion of others, which totally short-circuits history’s winnowing process. Anyway, he predicted that, despite its horrible stylistic flaws, Uncle Tom’s Cabin would stand the test of time because of its obvious importance and resonance. He was, unfortunately, wrong, and our heritage is the poorer for it.

3 Responses
  1. Virginia permalink
    January 9, 2011

    Excellent analysis. I think the key is to somehow teach students how to, in fact, read fictional documents the way you are reading them – to see fictional documents not as records of events of the past but as windows into a past way of thinking. (And if this is the approach, short excerpts from the document will suffice, sidestepping the problem of the documents being long and boring to today’s students). People do not often realize how very different the assumptions and truths of one age are from assumptions and truths of the present – how in the past some of the thoughts we might have today were literally un-thinkable – and vice versa. As a social studies teacher I have tried to bring students to this understanding of how to read documents and have had zero success… But I’m sure it can be done, if only the teacher is skilled enough.

  2. January 17, 2011

    I just discovered your blog through the bold piece that got cited at common dreams and now I’m reading through the archives– you’re one hell of great writer and thinker.

    I’m finally reading “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” right now and I’m absolutely blown away by how powerful it is, despite all of its superficially off-putting elements. I’m about ready to declare that this is the most morally complex American novel ever written. Stowe is constantly laying traps for the reader, lulling you into an easy moral judgments, then pulling the rug out from under you, wrapping you up in it, and beating you soundly with a rug-beater. The moral whiplash I experienced while listening to the three-way arguments between Augustine, Ophelia, and Topsy was dizzying.

    It’s such a shame that a rich novel like this can get dismissed as too offensive for high school (or even college) readers, punishing Stowe for taking on an extremely controversial unsettled topic, while a near-contemporary like Jane Austen can be blithely assigned as totally inoffensive, simply because she utterly ignored the sources of the wealth of the empire she wrote about. And nobody says anything cringe-worthy to the servants either, seeing as how the servants have no little-to-no dialogue in her books. Isn’t that more offense?

  3. January 17, 2011

    Thanks, Matt and Virginia. When I started reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I actually thought it would be very difficult to get through and merely an exercise in sentimentality. Considering how widespread the admiration for the book was at the time (and the fact that it included ordinary people, politicians, intellectuals, etc.), I should have known better.

    I’ve actually read quite a lot of Jane Austen, and I must agree there too. It is actually astonishing to me how much academic energy has been expended on her.

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