It’s just a little over 100 years since Mark Twain died and here he is right smack in the middle of a national debate on Race. There’s no doubt in my mind the man’s playing billiards in Hell and pleased as a cock who’s just woken up half a town of drunks on New Year’s Day. If nothing else, he’s probably laughing as cash registers ring up sales of Huck Finn and fuming as Project Gutenberg downloads heat up because Mark Twain was first and foremost a man concerned about getting his rightful coin for every word.
Obviously, it’s hard not to wade into the current discussion of Huckleberry Finn. After all, I’m working on a book that is unabashedly modeled after Twain’s classic twist on the Odyssey (and by twist I mean total rip off). I’ve spent a lot of time with Huck and Jim and the words of their chronicler. I am not, however, a Twain scholar. I’m a writer, a two-bit scribbler of words and tales.
As a writer, I understand why Twain used the word in question. Yes, it was “natural” for the time but that’s not why he selected the word. He chose the word explicitly to incite a reaction in those who could discern the meaning. He was making a point. If anyone thinks the Mark Twain chose that word as just a natural part of speech they are fooling themselves.
If anyone in Twain’s circle was going to complain about the dehumanization of Jim or the use of the word in question, it would be his wife. Olivia Langdon Clemens grew up in a family that was religious, reformist and above all abolitionist. As my previous (completely serendipitous) post reveals, Twain read the book to his wife, her mother, and her aunt. These Yankee women of the time, did not complain about the use of the word and my guess is that they understood exactly why the author had used it and used it frequently.
Do I feel the same about the use of the word? Do I feel it is necessary? I do.
In my book, I have a similar word. No human alive today could possibly take offense to this word, but a century or two from now, who knows? It might be expunged if I am so lucky as to finish the damn book (and twice as lucky again to see it published). Yet, I chose that word specifically for the same reason that Twain chose his and I am using it to reach the same means.
I do understand the feelings of those who cannot read Huckleberry Finn because of the word in question. I understand because I’ve read Malcolm X, and while I don’t lay claim to understanding Malcolm X in the way a black man would. I do understand the emotion that wells up each and every time “white, blue-eyed devils” appears in By Any Means Necessary.
By Any means Necessary is not Huckleberry Finn and yet each book has an author and each author made very specific choices when they wrote their respective books. Each author sat down put those words on paper and thought about them carefully. Each author read and reread those words, shaped and sculpted the prose to produce very specific reactions.
As much as it angered me to read those words (because I did not feel they were fair or applied to me), I kept on reading till the end. I also saw the effect just carrying this book around had on people, black and white. In the end, I didn’t read Malcolm X just because I thought his ideas were important. You can get the basic premise of it quick enough. I read By Any Means Necessary because of the impact the words had on me, the way the words made me reevaluate my white, middle-class upbringing. I read it for the lesson the book taught me about careful word choice.
What Would Tom Sawyer Do?
That’s what Huck asks himself time and again and in his heart, Twain was always Tom Sawyer not Huck Finn. Tom Sawyer always knew how to turn a situation to his advantage (if he wasn’t already in control of the situation in the first place, which would be almost never). So what would Tom do?
My take on this is pretty simple. If there was a buck to be made, Tom Sawyer would have the word out of the book so fast it would make Samuel Clemens’ head spin. But we’re still talking about this book 125 years after it’s publication for a reason and because of that I don’t think he’d remove it. Twain would do the same and keep it in because there was an advantage to it both commercially and artistically.
That’s it. No great cry of censorship or sensibilities. No indignant ire as one of my heroes is vilified by those living in times more than a century removed from the events in Huck Finn.
And if there is any question about Twain’s reaction, I point to a letter he wrote on the subject in 1907 when his book Eve’s Diary was banned because of the illustrations it contained:
The truth is, that when a Library expels a book of mine and leaves an unexpurgated Bible lying around where unprotected youth and age can get hold of it, the deep unconscious irony of it delights me and doesn’t anger me.
Words matter, but only if you are willing to read them. Words matter, but only if you know how to use them.