Monday, January 17, 2011

When and If to Read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

The debate about Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has broadened and deepened.  Over the past days, commentators have tied the question of the sanitized edition of the book to the House of Representatives' idiosyncratic reading of an abridged copy of the US Constitution (on the opening day of Congress) and have opened the discussion not only to whether the original text of the book should followed but also to when (or if) the book should be read by students before they enter college.  It's been an energetic discussion that underscores the book's central place in American literary tradition, even if the book wasn't always thought to be the best and most distinguished of American novels (its prized place in the canon is more a result of the mid-20th century's critical agenda to create "the American novel" than any instant finding by critics or audiences that the book stands alone).  One writer on the Mark Twain Forum electronic list pointedly questioned whether academics involved in post-secondary teaching are even aware of the difficulties that primary and secondary school teachers face.  It was a very good question.  No one as yet has jumped in with an answer.

If you take the time to read the comments on line for news stories, blogs, or discussion groups, it's clear that this entire debate has struck a deep and resonant chord.  Comments on the EnglishCompanion.ning site demonstrate the breadth of reaction by teachers and a series of topic threads and comments on the NY Times Knowledge Network blog highlights comments by a broad cross-section of readers (as do comments on the Times' opinion pages).  Everyone is engaged and everyone has thoughtful contributions to the discussion.  It's really quite stunning to witness this cultural debate in real time, and it can be both reassuring and intimidating for those of us who teach the book.

I never read Hucklberry Finn until I was 27 years old and in graduate school.  For some reason, which from my reading of the reader comments doesn't really appear to be all that unique, I was never introduced to Twain's novel, not even during my undergraduate years as an English major.  Or, for that matter, during my work on my MA.  And I must say that, for me anyway, I was not diminished by that lack.  It may have helped me approach the novel when I finally got to it in a course devoted to Twain as I began by doctoral course work.  I was then presented with a fairly conventional interpretation of the novel (the idea of its being a statement of an exceptionally American individualism).  But I wasn't restricted to that meaning, and (eventually) I have been able to move on to a more complicated (and, of course, more accurate!) reading of the novel within the tradition of 19th century community and the tradition of realism (if not the realism practiced by William Dean Howells -- a whole other discussion).  It all makes me wonder about the notion that we need to introduce younger and younger readers to this particular novel -- as if Twain himself thought that children were his primary audience.  They weren't.  And why do we insist that they should be.

I think we would be wise to delay introducing the novel, at least in a formal educational setting that by definition seems to set any book into a pantheon of canonical -- that is socially sanctioned -- texts.  Young readers will of course be able to read the book under the guidance (or even ignorance) of parents or other guardians.  But teaching the novel should be addressed more carefully and in a more complicated way, and that means with older and experienced readers.  Only then are you able to introduce the deeper questions of prejudice, social abuse, religious hypocrisy, or moral depth vs. moral expedience.  It won't hurt Twain for us to wait.  There are a lot of other texts that we can use to introduce students to his writing -- for example, short fiction is his strength and would be useful with younger or even more mature students.

In all, these past weeks have been an interesting bit of cultural chaos.  We should now try to use the experience to sharpen (but not solidify) our own thinking.

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