You’ve all heard the news that Mark Twain’s classic anti-slavery, anti-racist book has been changed to take out a very offensive word so more teachers would feel comfortable using the book in their classes. My question is: Why are teachers still trying to foist Mark Twain on children? You can bet it wasn’t taught in schools when he wrote it, I doubt that it sold very well in his racially divided hometown of Hannibal, Mo. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” shouldn’t be read by school age children any more than “Rosemary’s Baby” should be read out loud at a lap sit. Not because of the offensive word, but because making kids read books they are not mature enough to understand makes them hate reading for the rest of their lives. That’s what has kept me from reading “Huckleberry Finn” 45 years since some idiot teacher “made” me read it in high school. Slowly, over the years, I realized that Twain had written a wonderfully subversive book showing that the evilness and degradation of slavery wasn’t just hurting slaves, it also corrupted the slavers and their white enablers as well.
Twain was all about words and ideas – to imagine that he didn’t know the power of the words he chose to use is arrogance on a Churchillian level. Twain wrote a lot about race. He knew what he was talking about. He grew up in pre-Civil War Missouri. He knew real slaves, he knew what his white friends and family thought about them. His book “The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson,” the tale of a well-off white child and the son of a light-skinned black slave who are switched at birth. It’s not subtle at all in the way it shows racism hurts both the victim and the perpetrators.
The thing that should be changed about “Huckleberry Finn” is not the words; the thing that should be changed is forcing students who aren’t ready for it, to read it. It’s the same idiotic, reverence for the classics that has killed the joy of reading Dickens and Shakespeare for generations of youngsters. Trust me, Twain was not thinking, “Someday they’ll make ‘Jersey Shore’-watching 13-year-olds read this one in detention,” when he wrote it. It was not written for children, and forcing them to read it, as well as other classics that they have no interest in, has been an educational disaster.
I’ve read unconfirmed, but probably close-to-the-mark, statistics that 42 percent of college graduates never read another book after they graduate, that 80 percent of U.S. families did not read or buy a book last year. It seems we know how to teach children to read, but we do a much better job of making them not want to. Even if you write a millions-selling book in this country, all it means is that 309 million people didn’t buy it.
Of all the books written in Twain’s lifetime by other American authors, why are we so wrapped up with the words in “Huckleberry Finn” and not all the other books that used the word? Because the other books, by and large, were racist. And badly written. Twain’s was not. It has survived on its merits. I suppose the best thing we could do for “Huckleberry Finn” is to ban it and then maybe teens would want to read it, hoping Huck turns out to be a vampire who falls in love with teenage girls from schools just like theirs, and who look and act just like they do, who have problems just like theirs and say things, like, you know, they way kids, like, really talk. There are plenty of books written for children and young adults. “Huckleberry Finn” is not one of them.
Jim Mullen is the author of “It Takes a Village Idiot: Complicating the Simple Life” and “Baby’s First Tattoo.” You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 2011, United Feature Syndicate, Inc.