Thursday, February 18, 2010

Huck Finn and the N Word

 An English professor at UCLA claims that both Huck Finn and its author are racist.  His arguments (really a single argument) are so facile that I would ignore it completely, except for the fact that it is also incredibly pervasive.

The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn (Unabridged And Illustrated)Here is the prof, quoted in the article, on why Twain and his book are racist:

"Was Huckleberry Finn a racist?

"Yes," Wortham said. And so was Mark Twain.

Twain used the "N-word" 206 times, according to Wortham. "Each time that word is used is calculated" by Twain for its shock value for an audience that at the time was unaccustomed to literature written in the vernacular, he said.

People should "take off the commercial eyeglasses" when they read Huckleberry Finn.

"Let's not try to see it in terms of what we wish Mark Twain had written," he said. "Go back and look at the text. It's as relevant today as it was in 1884 when the book was published.""

This argument is so depressing, but the most depressing - and sinister - aspect of it is that it's given by an English Professor at a great university.

Ok, let's deconstruct and rebut his point.  Mark Twain used the "N" word in his book 206 times.  That word was used "for its shock value for an audience...unaccustomed to literature written in the vernacular".  Ergo, Twain is racist.

This argument presupposes that the only reason you would use a word in a novel is because you believe in the validity of that word, and the meanings that stand behind it.  So, for example, when William Styron writes, in Sophie's Choice, of guards in Nazi Germany calling Jews various racial epithet, he also obviously believes Jews are those various epithets.  You see the silliness of this argument.

What's more depressing about this argument is that Huck Finn - both on the surface and when you dig deep into it - is so clearly an anti-racist novel.  It is this professor, who is reading the text as children in schools used to read Latin texts - for the pornography and the curse words, ignoring the message and the meaning of the story itself - who should, in his own words, "Go back and look at the text" as Mark Twain wrote it.

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