Christian Schneider

Author, Columnist

The Huckleberry Conundrum

\"\"One of my fondest memories from childhood is when my dad sat down with me and read Mark Twain\’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to me.  That\’s right, every night we dutifully sat down, and my pops read the whole thing to me, word for word.  I believe this occurred around 1981.

Naturally, with Huck Finn being one of the seminal American novels, I have considered doing the same thing for my kids.  In preparation, I sat down and re-read it this weekend.  And it is as good as I (and most American literary historians) remember it.  It\’s fascinating that when written, that book was meant for children – yet when compared to today\’s literature, it is more complex and verbally advanced than 90% of the books meant for adults in modern times.

But, of course, there is \”the problem.\”  The book contains dozens of instances of the \”n\” word.  Of course, the book is told from the perspective of a 14 year-old uneducated boy, who in 1884 probably would have used the word liberally.  (Shakespeare has received similar criticism for his unflattering portrayal of Shylock the Jew in Merchant of Venice – although, again, that\’s how Jews would have been portrayed at the time it was written.)  Further, one of the main themes of the book is exposing how de-humanizing slavery is.  But that really doesn\’t matter now, when I am faced with reading that word to my kids a couple hundred times.  There are passages of the book that are really difficult to read, given how ugly the language is in the contemporary context.

Clearly,  I\’m not the only one who has figured this out.  The American Library Association actually keeps statistics on the most objected to books in American libraries, and between 1990 and 2000, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn ranks fifth – 124 years after its original publication.  Presumably, the main objection is the continued inclusion of a racial slur.  (Although the same people who make this objection are probably the same ones willing to fillet Sarah Palin for her supposed desire to ban books in the Wasilla library.)  Most of the other books in the list deal in touchy cultural issues, like \”Daddy\’s Roommate,\” \”Heather Has Two Mommies,\” and \”Little Hitler Learns to Love Gays.\”  (Okay, I made that last one up.)

Maybe I\’m being too touchy – after all, kids have heard the word in this book for a century and a quarter, and it doesn\’t seem to have sparked a revival.  Maybe I\’m not giving my kids enough credit for being able to understand context.  But reading the book aloud is probably enough to get me elected into the Klan hall of fame. (They can put my bust right next to Marge Schott\’s.)

So what do I do?  Just forge ahead and hope they understand enough not to use that word?  Wait until they\’re older and understand the context better?  Read it and do some self-editing, thereby desecrating an American work of art?

3 Comments

  1. Sam Clemens would be proud that his book was the object of so much scorn.

    And you know the answer to your question! You figured it out when you were a kid, and your kids are undoubtedly far more intelligent than you.

  2. Gotta say “No” on the Huck Finn readings. A young kid is going to have trouble filtering out the difference between time-period literature and acceptable everyday language. If said reading takes place, be prepared to hear some ill-timed N-bombs dropped around the house.

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