Letters for the week of November 19, 2003 

You can't understand Huck Finn until you've walked in my shoes. The way to understand Huck Finnis to put its language in context.


"Misadventures of Huckleberry Finn," Feature, 10/29

Huck Finn through the eyes of a black fifth-grader
My family moved from Georgia to Elko, Nevada, in the mid-1940s, and I was the only black student in my fifth-grade class. Each day after we returned from lunch, our teacher, Mrs. Glazier, read to us for a half-hour. I suppose this was her way of making sure that we were exposed to such classics as Treasure Island, Little Women, and Oliver Twist.

One day she began reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and I still remember the shock and anger I felt when she read the word "nigger." Every kid in the class turned to look at me, and some giggled gleefully when they saw how uncomfortable I was. I had made it clear to them that there would be hell to pay if I ever heard them use the word; now Mrs. Glazier, a powerful authority figure, was actually legitimizing the insult. Instead of being appalled, everyone burst out laughing when Tom, after Aunt Polly asked him if anyone had been killed in a riverboat explosion, replied, "No'm, just a nigger."

For days I endured the reading, and after Tom Sawyer Mrs. Glazier began Huckleberry Finn. At no time did she explain that the racial slurs in the books were meant to be "literary devices;" nor did she ever tell the class that the books were supposed to have deeper meanings beneath the folksy language.

I was confused as well as angry, and so was my mother when I told her about the readings. Even in the South we hadn't heard the "N" word used so blatantly. My family didn't protest, however, because we weren't sure what might happen to us if we did. There was only a handful of blacks in Elko, and virtually all had moved from places where racism was legal as well as prevalent. Besides, in the 1940s protests and demonstrations were extremely rare and seldom tolerated.

Many years have passed since that bitter classroom experience, but a feeling of rage still wells up inside me when I hear Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn mentioned. I don't approve of any book being banned or censored, but I certainly understand why many black parents object to the two Twain novels; no defense of the books can ever justify the pain they cause young black readers.
Hosea L. Martin, Piedmont

The most important paragraphs in all of American literature
Having just completed reading Huck with my students (an AP/Junior English class at Encinal High School in Alameda), I thought I'd share with you how I approach the story and what parts most interest me. First of all, your piece was interesting in how it brought together many of the elements of Huck that make it so fascinating.

Over the years, my students have come to the conclusion that Huck is a wonderful mess of a novel. They groan and complain during the whole section when the duke and king are on board the raft, and react with near-violence when Tom shows up with his plans on how to free Jim. Why? They like Huck and Jim, just the two of them, on the raft floating down the river. Huck's voice is gentle then, and beautifully descriptive, as he narrates the bliss of the frontier.

For me, as a reader and teacher, it is an earlier scene that I focus on to reveal what I think is the power of the novel. It is, I argue, the most important set of paragraphs in all American literature (forgive the hyperbole). Huck and Jim get lost in the fog, and when they reunite, Huck teases Jim into thinking it was all a dream. Jim then sets aside Huck's version, and scolds the boy for treating him like "trash." Huck then takes an amazing step -- he goes to Jim and apologizes and says he will never again treat him in a way that will be so hurtful. I share with my students the power of this scene by noting two things -- that for a moment Jim is willing to set aside his own sensory experiences and view of reality (that it was not a dream) and accept Huck's view because, as he says later, Huck is white. If nowhere else, here is where a modern reader can get a real sense of the damage of slavery -- that a fully grown man is compelled to subjugate himself for a white boy. The other element is Huck's willingness to apologize, something he was unwilling to do when he caused a snake to bite Jim. Linked up to Huck and Tom's teasing of Jim in the very beginning, we see a progression of growth and recognition of Jim's humanity. For us the reader we come to see, as Huck does, that Jim is far more than three-fifths human.

The problem, then, is how to reconcile this with the way Huck and Jim relate, and who they are individually, when Tom shows up. All of the old prejudices come back as Huck goes back to being yes-man to Tom, and Jim goes back to subservient slave to the superior -- yet still a child -- white person. It is irritating to any reader who has connected to Huck and Jim and, even naively, framed them as being free from prejudice. I try to explain this to my students in a pretty conventional way -- that on the river, away from the burdens and limitations of society, Huck and Jim can be close friends, familiar enough to share food, discuss the stars and the moon, even swim naked together (let's not go there). It is my attempt to help them with the end of the novel, an ending famous for not offering much satisfaction and no closure on Jim's desire on getting back his wife and children.

The post-fog scene shows, I think, great bravery on the part of Mark Twain. He takes a white character, albeit a homeless child, and has him treat a black man with respect, maybe even love. Twain shows this kind of strength later when he describes a mob coming after a man who has just killed another man in a duel. Colonel Sherburn taunts the crowd, saying they are weak and should have come "Southern style" with hoods. Clearly Twain is taking a stab at the Klan, at a time when they were visible and powerful in the post-Civil War, post-Reconstruction South.

I guess my point here is that what makes Huck Finn a masterpiece are the following -- the voices of the characters are brilliant, the descriptions of nature are sublime, the comedy is the best ever, and the way Twain grapples with not so much the issue of slavery directly, but the issue of humanity, is compelling and amazing. It is not a masterly novel in terms of coherence and consistency but, maybe like our country itself, it strives for greatness and, in many places, achieves it.

P.S. The Great American Novel is The Grapes of Wrath, but let's leave that for another discussion!
Gene Kahane, Alameda

"Fleetwood Mac in Reverse," Down in Front, 10/15

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