dirac

New versions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn

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Some time ago in one of our "What are you reading?" threads, the topic of teaching The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to today's young students arose.

Apparently one point of view on the matter has been taken to its logical conclusion.

"After a number of talks, I was sought out by local teachers, and to a person they said we would love to teach this novel, and Huckleberry Finn, but we feel we can't do it anymore. In the new classroom, it's really not acceptable." Gribben became determined to offer an alternative for grade school classrooms and "general readers" that would allow them to appreciate and enjoy all the book has to offer. "For a single word to form a barrier, it seems such an unnecessary state of affairs," he said.

Thoughts?

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The kids on my bus - the 49 Van Ness in San Francisco - use all sorts of shocking racial names addressing each other, back and forth, like a sort of hard table tennis - as if they're somehow trying to wear them out and desensitize them. So such words may currently embarrass the teachers and people of an older generation more than the students.

Anyway, regarding how racially mixed things are regarding Mark Twain and Huck Finn, I recently came across an old, slightly cranky Tony Tanner review in the London Review concerning a book by Shelley Fishkin called "Was Huck Black?" Its premise is that Huck Finn was based to some degree (Tanner says only partially) on a talkative African American young man whom Twain met and wrote about as "Sociable Jimmy" - sort of a Rameau's Nephew to Twain. Tanner begins by quoting Ralph Ellison:

In 1970, Ellison claimed ‘the black man [was] a co-creator of the language that Mark Twain raised to the level of literary eloquence ... without the presence of blacks, the book [Huckleberry Finn] could not have been written. No Huck and Jim, no American novel as we know it.’ But, as Fishkin says, ‘his comment sank like a stone, leaving barely a ripple on the placid surface of American literary criticism.’

Tanner goes on to say:

[Fishkin's] evidence is based on a piece by Mark Twain called ‘Sociable Jimmy’, published in November 1874. Jimmy, Mark Twain claimed, was a ‘bright, simple, guileless little darkey boy’ who served him supper in his room in a hotel in a small Midwest town (probably Paris, Illinois). Jimmy, it appears, talked non-stop, and Twain (who made a point of trying to transcribe as accurately as possible the many dialects and regional accents he encountered) noted: ‘I took down what he had to say, just as he said it – without altering a word or adding one.’ He did this because he ‘wished to preserve the memory of the most artless, sociable and exhaustless talker I ever came across. He did not tell me a single remarkable thing or one that was worth remembering; and yet he was himself so interested in his small marvels, and they flowed so naturally and comfortably from his lips, that his talk got the upper hand of my interest, too, and I listened as one who receives a revelation.’ Fishkin’s claim is strong and simple. ‘I suggest that the voice of Jimmy ... became a model for the voice with which Twain would change the shape of American literature.’

Voice of America [may be subscriber only link]

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Almost as nutty as that was this week's set of "Why Criticism Matters" New York Book Review essays which - with the exception perhaps of Elif Batuman's - seemed, contrary their mission, to trivialize criticism, to be impatient with genuine tools of analysis and render it toothless and meaningless - and to say things like "the secret function of the critic is to write beautifully and in doing so protect beautiful writing" and "what matters most is not exercising influence and force but writing well." It was as if the great critics like Auerbach or Lukacs (at least of Theory of the Novel) or Bahktin had never exisited.

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Thanks, Quiggin. I expect also that teachers may choose not to teach the book because they don't want to deal with the potential trouble from students and parents who don't get it, an understandable position if not a particularly heroic one.

Off topic, but I too thought that the NYBR piece on the relevance of criticism was poor, but given some of the commentators selected (Katie Roiphe, who supplied the guff about "beautiful writing, " et al.) what else could you expect?

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Dr. Gribben recognizes that he's putting his reputation at stake as a Twain scholar," said La Rosa. "But he's so compassionate, and so believes in the value of teaching Twain, that he's committed to this major departure. I almost don't want to acknowledge this, but it feels like he's saving the books. His willingness to take this chance—I was very touched.

That's the most harebrain quote in the article. 'Saving the book' indeed. It doesn't have to be taught if it's got to be ruined. I don't think it's inconceivable to think that all sorts of new 'cleansings' will be done for political correctness, even if the grounds for doing this is that it's 'high school young kids', not undergrads reading Faulkner. I don't buy it, and think that there will be many efforts to 'cleanse' the whole Faulkner canon, which is full of the use of the n-word. I know people who already support this sort of thing, and there are publishers and producers of great power who wouldn't think it was an important matter at all (to keep the pure texts of any of these works.) There are surely arguments that, in university, there might even be more objection by radical students. On the plus side, 'The Wind Done Gone' has not overtaken 'Gone With the Wind' as it had hoped to.

Thanks for the Ellison info, Quiggin, which does remind one that the word is used quite liberally among blacks themselves, with slight changes in the spelling, which is understandable as a somewhat peculiar exclusivity.

But there are lots of people who object to leaving artworks as they were, even when it has to do with the period. A friend of mine talks about the use of the word 'chicks' in 'Blow-up' as being sexist, and that's why she hates the film (of course, it probably is sexist, but then get rid of the Ku Klux Klan sequence in 'Birth of a Nation' too, I guess, if people are just too delicate to even bear the fact that conditions in the past that are no longer acceptable ought not to be whitewashed--yes, I rather like that word for this sort of thing. Don't they even want to save evidence of what they're now fighting against?)

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No more Tom Sawyer due to racial-related sensitive material, no more Michelangelo's David or Goya's Naked Maja due to nudity-related sensitive material...and on and on and on...

Meanwhile, REAL horrifying stuff is happening right in front of our eyes, and still we pretend we don't see it.

Can't stand double standards... :wallbash:

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But there are lots of people who object to leaving artworks as they were, even when it has to do with the period. A friend of mine talks about the use of the word 'chicks' in 'Blow-up' as being sexist, and that's why she hates the film (of course, it probably is sexist, but then get rid of the Ku Klux Klan sequence in 'Birth of a Nation' too, I guess, if people are just too delicate to even bear the fact that conditions in the past that are no longer acceptable ought not to be whitewashed--yes, I rather like that word for this sort of thing. Don't they even want to save evidence of what they're now fighting against?)

Based on what you wrote, your friend is not proposing censorship. She's saying she has a hard time liking the movie because of the sexism, just as there are blacks and whites for that matter, who can't stomach Birth of a Nation (there were protests at the time of the movie's release, and nobody would accuse the 1915 zeitgeist of being too politically correct). If she were suggesting suppressing or censoring the film it would be another matter, but I see nothing wrong with saying "It may or may not be good or great, but the element of X is too much for me to take, and I don't like it and would rather not watch it."

In regard to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I should think the response of a good teacher would be to explain that this is a classic work that a student of American literature should know, and not only is it not racist but quite the opposite, and give the reasons why.

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Some people even object to the word "slave" - which by its elimination, neuters history. Tanner discusses some other interesting topics of the period, including William Dean Howells's ambivalent attitude in his novels, though not in his acts:

Unreproachfully, indeed almost sympathetically, Warren demonstrates how ‘difficult’ it was for the realists ‘to reconcile African-American needs with the art of the real’. Warren cites An Imperative Duty by Howells, in which Rhoda, discovering her black ancestry, wonders whether she should go down South and help to educate her people. These sentiments are made to appear humorous, even ridiculous, for the realist will always satirise romantic idealism. Howells the artist always did. Yet Howells the citizen was a founding and committed member of the NAACP. As Warren amply shows, writers who were ‘friends of racial egalitarianism’ were, in their work, often ‘checkmated by their ambivalences’.

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papeetepatrick:

A friend of mine talks about the use of the word 'chicks' in 'Blow-up' as being sexist, and that's why she hates the film.

Your friend should definitely not read the new Keith Richards memoir, in which chick is the mildest term Richards uses. Jenny Diski has written a very funny account in the new London Review on her experience reading it, titled "Never Mainline."

I’m going to hang on to Keith Richards’s autobiography, because sometimes I worry that I lead a boring life and wonder if I shouldn’t try harder to have fun. When that happens, a quick flick through Keith’s memoirs will remind me that I’ve never really wanted to live the life of anyone else, not even a Rolling Stone. Or especially. I haven’t bought a Stones album since Sticky Fingers in 1971 and haven’t deliberately listened to anything they recorded after Exile on Main Street a year later. I find Mick Jagger’s dancing embarrassingly inept and can never remember Bill Wyman’s name.

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She was not proposing censorship, but she was not trying to be objective at all either. It's true, though, that doesn't matter, most of us aren't most of the time, but she's a real film buff and student of film. Actually, she said 'the girl characters were so silly' as well, but she was not looking into whether they were accurately portrayed for the milieu, but that example could be argued ad infinitum. But sure, the misogyny in 'Rififi' is something you cannot possibly miss, it's very extreme there, and many would find it revolting, and so they don't watch it.

And 'Birth of a Nation', also, really IS racist, but real film scholars like Aileen Bowzer in particular, formerly of MoMA, know how to look at Griffith's great work anyway. Yes, there were protest, but the film was also enormously popular all over the country (the 'highest-grossing film of the silent era'), which it definitely would not be now as a new film. As a work from the past, it is respected even if loathed.

Edited to add: I'm really now convinced one has to be careful with Wiki. I just took a look at their entry for 'Birth' and it is described as a 'comedy film'. ????

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Yes, there were protest, but the film was also enormously popular all over the country, which it definitely would not be now as a new film.

No, a movie glorifying the Ku Klux Klan and the terrorizing of helpless African-Americans would certainly not go over well today. Some people just lack objectivity, I guess....

Some people even object to the word "slave" - which by its elimination, neuters history.

Exactly.

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No, a movie glorifying the Ku Klux Klan and the terrorizing of helpless African-Americans would certainly not go over well today. Some people just lack objectivity, I guess....

For the record, since you have 'cut-and-pasted' (not literally, of course) my remarks so that my thrust comes across differently from what I think it's clear I intended, I would just say that, of course they would not, and they should not. That would not be 'being objective' if they did accept a glorification of Ku Klux Klan, it would be obvious an indulgence in a renaissance of racism. Of course, it may not be that 'Rififi' is really misogynistic, though, in the same sense that 'Birth' definitely is racist, because although Mado les Grands Bras is brutally beaten by Tony, it may be an accurate picture of these 'tough guys', and one does easily and deeply sympathize with Mario's wife Ida, Jo's wife Louise, as well as Mado, if not quite so easily (for the narrative) with Viviane, who is made to seem on the sluttish side (although that characterization might be the very one that is most obviously misogynistic).

This does put me in mind that I think people wouldn't try to suppress 'Blow-up', but really might eventually try to suppress 'Birth of a Nation' and 'Gone with the Wind' even. This kind of thing has definitely been done in other nations and oppressive authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. The issue would be different from Huck Finn in that it's not a matter of young kids in teaching situations of high school classes (frankly, I think high school kids nowadays would be perfectly capable, as you point out, of being able to understand why Huckleberry Finn is not racist, by a competent and serious teacher. Leaving out the 'n-word' might even have the effect of making some of the students seek out original texts, just as one sought out the 'good parts' of sex novels in the old days. We don't seem to need to do that any more, can't imagine why not.)

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If I misunderstood you, Patrick, then of course I'm sorry. I trust it is superfluous in me to point out that I did no cutting and pasting, literal or otherwise, or deliberate misrepresentation of any kind.

My point was that your friend made a choice for herself that she can reasonably defend, and she made it for herself, not for others. She doesn't like Blow-Up because of what she perceives as its sexism, and you don't think it is sexist or at any rate don't think the sexism is blatant enough to be objectionable. (If I am misinterpreting then by all means say so.)

Leaving out the 'n-word' might even have the effect of making some of the students seek out original texts,

Interesting you should mention that, because I think that is part of Professor Gribben's intention. As much as I disagree with him, he is not trying to suppress or even supplant The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but bowdlerize the work to make it accessible to a class of readers who might never otherwise open the book and perhaps eventually induce those readers to seek out the real thing. Of course, the road to hell is paved with et cetera.

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It wasn't even serious, it was just that the word 'chick' came to mind as a single word that she had objected to, but that was used in the periodz (mid-60s), and sometimes you still hear it, I imagine. I didn't care if she objected to it enough to make her not like it or even think it's a bad movie; I just think her objection makes sense in terms of 'not liking it', but not that it 'made it a bad movie'. Sure, they're lots of people that don't want to see 'Cabin in the Sky' and all those Hollywood usages of blacks and 'step 'n' fetch it' syndrome.

I probably just didn't see 'Blow-up' as obviously sexist as 'Rififi', which doesn't seem to me to be as obviously sexist as 'Birth of a Nation' is racist. It's difficult primarily with the latter, because we are both saying the Huckleberry Finn is not racist, despite the use of the N-word, whereas 'Birth of a Nation' clearly is (it just occurs to me that you definitely don't see the N-word printed in the subtitles to that film), and yet we know it's a great film, even those who hate it (usually, I'll add; this particular film is perhaps one of those that is deemed so ideologically untenable that it is, among libertarian thinkers, the one that they will just say is worthless, and at bottom, not to be seen as anything worth considering beyond its ideology). I'd say 'Birth of a Nation' is like 'Triumph of the Will', obviously Nazi, but considered even by Jews like Susan Sontag to be the 'greatest propaganda film ever made'. You could be right in the second paragraph, and the professor clearly is not someone of bad will, at least in any obvious way. I don't know if it's credible that they will seek out the original; probably some will, some won't. Unfortunately or not, I'll concede that doing things like this was 'bound to happen'. Probably my only real point (for myself, that is) in this discussion, in regard to Huckleberry Finn, is that if that word means that it can't be taught, then they just oughtn't to teach it. 'Vanity Fair' is full of racism, and the matter doesn't come across very strongly because the words aren't racist in the literal sense. And all sorts of English classics can be read as sexist and racist both. I consider all of it pretty much under the same umbrella Quiggin said with the clever phrase 'neutering history'.

Oh yes, right now, I'm working on some new writing based on one of the old 70s biker films, 'Angels Die Hard'. There is all sorts of class divide between the Angels and the townspeople of Kernville, but although the Angels are made out to have 'hearts of gold', they are quite overtly sexist in their treatment of the girls in the gang. It's even more explicit than the tough guys of Rififi. As you might expect, my fascination with the film is all about the bikes zooming through the mountains in the SoCal light, but I just put this in here because I'd recently been hearing discussions of class in which those in the underclasses are often spoken of by Marxists in particular as 'not guilty' of any of these bigotries, that it's all systemic with the ruling classes' model. This is off-topic, but the specific locus of this is some remarks made by Zizek after the business of the Roma/Gypsies in Frabce upon their expulsion--but that's too far afield. Maybe something can be done with this sanitized Mark Twain, I'm just by nature very suspicious of such things, I guess, and believe classic literature oughtn't to be tampered with.

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I'm just by nature very suspicious of such things, I guess, and believe classic literature oughtn't to be tampered with.

I apologize if i missed these being linked above, but the times has posted both a commentary saying much the same thing at some length: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/07/books/07huck.html?hp

and a room for debate (with many commentators) on the bowdlerized Huck Finn: http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2011/01/05/does-one-word-change-huckleberry-finn

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Thanks, aurora. Some interesting comments.

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In a charming piece in The Atlantic, Michael Chabon relates how he substituted (at his nine-year-old daughter's suggestion) "negro" for the offensive word when he read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn aloud to his kids.

--Anthony

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http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/16/opinion/16moore.html?hp

Ultimately, I agree with this author that this is the only practicable solution: "Huckleberry Finn" does not have to be seen as a high school text just because it has for generations, and it certainly can easily be made into a college text. Lorrie Moore points out that it can't be used in high schools, in fact, because times have irreversibly changed. She also points out things other than the word 'nigger' that are racist on Twain's part, like making fun of Jim because he's a black man. I'd forgotten these things, because I haven't reread for 30 years:

EVER since NewSouth Books announced it would publish a version of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” with the “n-word” removed, reaction has split between traditionalists outraged at censorship and those who feel this might be a way to get teenagers, especially African-American boys, comfortable reading a literary classic. From a mother’s perspective, I think both sides are mistaken.

No parent who is raising a black teenager and trying to get him to read serious fiction for his high school English class would ever argue that “Huckleberry Finn” is not a greatly problematic work. But the remedy is not to replace “nigger” with alternative terms like “slave” (the latter word is already in the novel and has a different meaning from “nigger,” so that substitution just mucks up the prose — its meaning, its voice, its verisimilitude). The remedy is to refuse to teach this novel in high school and to wait until college — or even graduate school — where it can be put in proper context.

Chabon's use of 'negro' is a private thing, and could never be used in public school, especially since it's also considered by now a racist term. These change with generations: 'Coloured people' is not now acceptable, but 'people of colour' is considered proper.

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I didn't realize that Huckleberry Finn wasn't read in college. In any case it's just as fit for high school reading as it ever was, and I find this sort of statement very sad. Nor is kicking the can down the road a bit likely to help in many circumstances.

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My statement 'sad' or hers? Because if you or somebody else knows how it can be done in already racially-bristling high schools with the word 'nigger' in it, it's fine with me. I thought there was a serious social problem with this, and that's why this do-gooder type decided to use 'slave', which is just stupid. Obviously, my whole concern is not to change the text. As for reading it in college, I'm sure it's sometimes done, but it has not been done so in that specific way, insofar as it's considered a de rigueur thing for high school traditionally. Most people are not doing 'Twain courses' as a freshmen or sophomore thing, unless it has to do with their major.

It seemed Ms. Moore was both protecting the text and making it possible to prevent chaos in the classroom, which would surely ensue in many cases, lots of hollering and screaming.

Thanks, Quiggin. I expect also that teachers may choose not to teach the book because they don't want to deal with the potential trouble from students and parents who don't get it, an understandable position if not a particularly heroic one.

I was responding equally to your quote here. That's true, but it's mostly understandable, because teachers don't have time to 'be heroic' about one controversial book--esp. in poor urban schools where there are full-time discipline and drug delinquency problems (think the Bronx, where a friend of mine taught for five years and barely got out alive, making every one of her friends miserable during those years as well--she talked to all of us as if WE were her students too, because you spend your whole time defending yourself in some of those slum schools); furthermore they don't know how to if they did, not nearly all the time.

But I'm out of this conversation, and have nothing further. It's important, but not that important. Not everybody even thinks it's that all-important a work, and it's not necessarily a greater masterpiece than all other American literature, even with the plaudits of Hemingway and whoever else. After all, Susan Sontag even expects people to accept that Hemingway is actually 'bad' as though you couldn't argue with it, as though she was somehow authoritative on Hemingway's 'badness', which is as typical of her as it is insane. All you have to do is pick up one of her novels to find out what 'bad' might really be. So if some 'celebrity intellectual' says Hemingway is 'bad' and Hemingway says all American literature, etc., then it's still all just opinions. I don't care that much after a certain point.

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... it's mostly understandable, because teachers don't have time to 'be heroic' about one controversial book--esp. in poor urban schools where there are full-time discipline and drug delinquency problems...

Here you summed up the real deal, Patrick. This is true. When my mother told me about the school censorship of the Greek-Roman nude sculptures, and then I asked her what was her position about it, her answer was. "Me...? I'll try to keep my job and make sure the armed security person is always near by in case I'm attacked..." That was when she taught in a troubled area where some youngsters couldn't keep their head up during her class, being as high as they could be. When you are in front of a classroom where the students don't have any problem on calling their professor "b..." in her own face...who cares about The Laocoonte...?

At the very end, truncated education will always be part of societies. Just as Tom Sawyer is not being mentioned in some schools, so is not Darwin in others, so it is up to the family first and then up to the student later on to fill up in the gaps. It could also happen the opposite, when you will have to put aside some things that were part of your childhood school curriculum and ended up not being that useful...(I had to take Marxism-Leninism from the age of ten all the way to college, always excelled in the tests and at the same time was being raised as a catholic boy at home, so I had to learn to play the "make-believe" game).

Let me add that human being will always be biased, and masterpieces-(in more than one art form)- were and will be treated sometimes accordingly. This is maybe not THAT close to the topic being discussed, but...hasn't also ballet to some extent fallen into biased views...? Think of Lifar's works, and how we always get to his political side when discussing the why of his absence from American companies repertoire-(aside from other factors). Today's society doesn't allow for public bonfires any longer, but they can keep going on in our heads, and we still do them following current correcteness...whatever that might be at the moment.

Life is a continuous process of self-education, and you will keep choosing what goes in, what should be left out and what's missing so you can catch on.

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My statement 'sad' or hers?

Hers, of course. I think her argument is sadly misguided. We can agree to disagree.

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Coloured people' is not now acceptable, but 'people of colour' is considered proper

I think the word "colored" has the special impact of its making its appearance - as documented in so many WPA photographs like those of Walker Evans - again and again over theater entrances and water fountains.

Think of Lifar's works, and how we always get to his political side when discussing the why of his absence from American companies repertoire-(aside from other factors)

I'm afraid I was the poster who brought up the question of Lifar and the fact that Lifar had been fired from the Paris Opera Ballet for his dubious activities during WWII. He's an interesting character to me - a brilliant dancer at times - and not so interesting at others, at least according to Richard Buckle. He's sort of like Plato's Alcibiades, a charming lion cub but not so charming as he grows up.

But I don't think it's politics that keeps Lifar's choreographies from being revived. Aside from "Suite en Blanc" there might not be much worth redoing, especially without Yvette Chauvire' to dance them (and think of all the Ballets Russes stuff that doesn't get revived). In uncharacteristically strong language, Edwin Denby says Pavane, L'Inconnue, and Entre Deux Rondes were particularly bad and that none of the others held a much of a lasting interest for him.

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The kids on my bus - the 49 Van Ness in San Francisco - use all sorts of shocking racial names addressing each other, back and forth, like a sort of hard table tennis - as if they're somehow trying to wear them out and desensitize them. So such words may currently embarrass the teachers and people of an older generation more than the students.

I recently re-watched "Saturday Night Fever" for the first time in years, and I had not remember how the dialogue is one verbal assault after another, starting with Tony Manero's family's dinner table.

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Ultimately, I agree with this author that this is the only practicable solution: "Huckleberry Finn" does not have to be seen as a high school text just because it has for generations, and it certainly can easily be made into a college text. Lorrie Moore points out that it can't be used in high schools, in fact, because times have irreversibly changed. She also points out things other than the word 'nigger' that are racist on Twain's part, like making fun of Jim because he's a black man. I'd forgotten these things, because I haven't reread for 30 years:

I agree with dirac. I don't think that the solution is as simple as bumping Huckleberry Finn to college courses. Yes, it's a problematic piece in many way, but it's also one of the integral texts in American literature, and much of post 19th Century American literature makes much more sense after reading it. I'm actually quite sad that I didn't read it in high school. (It wasn't because of any controvery; my high school's English department rotated the books that were taught every year and Huckleberry Finn just wasn't in the mix that fell for my class.)

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