Saturday, January 08, 2011

Huck's Audience

With all the flurry over the recent attempt to sanitize THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN for young audiences, one important element of the question seems to have gotten lost. Who was the intended audience? For that matter, consider the newly released film version of Jonathan Swift's GULLIVER'S TRAVELS. It is being marketed as a fun "family" film, but Swift's work was carefully crafted political satire aimed at adults.

Now look closely at Twain's book. Consider when he wrote it, not only in terms of the historical time period but also in terms of the stage of Twain's own life.  Though he may have envisioned a boy's adventure book when he began writing it, his novel became something very different by the end.  The end of Reconstruction, the introduction of Jim Crow, and a flood of lynchings as well as personal tragedy led Twain to put the half-finished manuscript on the shelf for seven years before he finally picked it back up. And when he did, he came at the novel from a very different place. There is far more darkness in his tale than today's young people would understand. Does that mean they shouldn't read it? No.

However, it does mean that we should treat it as what it is.  This book has been a point of contention on school reading lists for decades primarily because of the language, yet teachers want to share this eloquent indictment of Southern Honor and Post-Reconstruction realities with students of all ages. Why? What abiding truth resonates with the young reader? I think the problem is that many teachers don't really answer that question, if they ask it all all, before they plunge in with a group of unsuspecting 8th-graders.  Does a popsicle-stick raft really demonstrate an important theme in the book?

I'm not saying we shouldn't include this in our school reading list or ban people from teaching it.  I'm just saying don't be careless with it because you think it was meant for kids to read and learn a lesson about racism and don't let a sanitized version of the text lure you into a complacence that fails to address the true issues in the book.  An adolescent main character does not always mean a book was written for kids.  Is THE LOVELY BONES a book for young readers?

You can look around and find a host of classics that have been turned into graphic novels or abbreviated versions for young readers and that is not a bad thing.  We teach books written for adults all the time.  But if you wish to teach a book like HUCK FINN, don't assume that because one offensive word has been extracted or painted a different color that it is somehow more relevant or more acceptable to a young audience.

Kids can learn a lot from HUCK FINN.  Don't boil it down to a single word and don't assume that it was written for kids.  Think about those abiding truths you want your students to glean and start there. After all, if we want them to learn how to think about the hard questions, we have to be good models and ask them ourselves.

1 comment:

  1. I read about this too, Mary Ann. And I think that professor at Auburn completely missed Twain's point. Huckleberry Finn is one of my favorite novels of all time and possibly one of the best American novels ever written.

    And Twain himself was very much AGAINST racism, so when he used the "n" word, it was to show Huck's ignorance. Huck grows as a character and accepts Jim as a person, and not an ethnic type, by the end of the book. This book is far too important to our nation's history to risk changing a single word.


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