Monday, January 10, 2011

The Barney Frankification of Huckleberry Finn

I was listening to the NPR on the way to church the other day, and a report by Pippin Ross came on about a Moby Dick marathon in New Bedford, Mass., where 200 readers turned out the read the epic thing. Some of the readers were rather famous personages. One of them, unfortunately, was Congressman Barney Frank.

We join him in progress, reading Melville's great literary masterpiece:

FRANK: (Reading) At any rate, I made my mind and if so turned out that we sleep together, he must undress and get into bed before I did.
Uh oh. This could be trouble...

ROSS: The crowd is mostly into the meaning of Melville's writing. Congressman Frank sees the story as America's first step toward going green.

Mr. FRANK: It's a kind of striking thing to think that these enormous wondrous creatures were killed and captured only for their oil. And it was the discovery of electricity, an alternative form of energy, that led to the end of whaling.

There you have it. If you thought Frank was just a menace to the nation's economy, now you know what might happen if he were to get his hands on our literature. But the penchant to change what we read to conform to our own prejudices is one thing when it remains in the mind of a politically correct congressman from Massachusetts; it's another if changes it for the rest of us.

Hilary Kelly at the New Republic, writes one of the better defenses of the integrity of literature in regard to the current attempt to censor of Huckleberry Finn.
... But conventional is not the same as inoffensive; and my wholesome library is riddled with passages that are, by our standards, ugly and obscene. Old books, the ones we call classics, are often fascinating and offensive in the same measure, for the same reasons. Reading is an activity that frees our mind to parse moral and emotional complications, as we dig through the dilemmas of fictional characters and grapple with the fruits of our discovery. Often, those dilemmas are of a comprehensible and even banal nature—the stuff of ordinary experience, which transcends differences of time and place. But sometimes, we come upon characters or sentiments that repel us, that we find hard to comprehend and also to condone. We discover that our most cherished authors do not follow our own codes of civility, and their writing is scarred with racism, sexism, and the like.

The noteworthy thing is that we continue to be moved by these same morally imperfect books. Edith Wharton’s cruel representation of the Jew in the character of Simon Rosedale does not quite ruin or disqualify The House of Mirth. Despite its narrow views on evangelical Christianity, I keep coming back to Jane Eyre. As for the ill treatment of women—the canon is rife with it. We frequently encounter “offensive” material wrapped in delightful, elegant, illuminating narrative, and we can do nothing, save stop reading these novels and plays, to avoid it. The authors are no longer around to receive our protests, or to alter their work—and only they would have the authority to do so. We can scribble our rage in the margins, but the text we must leave alone.

... And so, the removal of the word “nigger” from Huckleberry Finn is another chink in the armor of our critical thinking. If the n-word is a barrier to reading Huckleberry Finn, then I see all the more reason—I say this as a former teacher of literature to schoolchildren—why its retention is imperative. Novels are safe havens for young children, places to explore the dark sides of existence without real-world ramifications. That is why the study of fiction is itself a moral education. In this imaginative exploration of human weakness and error and cruelty, the student also encounters the reality of racism. Indeed, the classroom is the optimal environment for such an encounter. With the support and guidance of a teacher, the shock and the anger can be recognized and analyzed, and turned into a beneficial pedagogical experience. A lesson on racial epithets, and why we do not use them, and what their career has been in the history of American English—surely this is preferable to the avoidance of the subject, which is an exercise in cultural dishonesty.

And where will it end? Shall we have The Merchant of Venice without the merchant of Venice? Should we skip over Daniel Deronda entirely? How about using the latest in computer technology to remove the blackface from old “Amos and Andy” clips? Might the world be a better place without the oeuvre of Henry Miller?
In other words, just wait: Shakespeare and George Eliot might be next. Read the rest if this terrific article here.

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