Thursday, July 22, 2004

Further talk about Huckleberry Finn

Huckleberry Finn is not an easy novel to teach. Huck's understanding is slow in coming and imperfect in its manifestations; the danger in teaching the novel is in not fully recognizing and respecting those facts but either condemning the novel's language and/or its depiction of Jim on the one hand or, on the other, arguing that it's America's Feel-Good Novel about Race. The truth is in the middle, and it's a messy middle at that, as race always has been. Its refusal to gloss over that middle--its honesty, in other words--is its greatness and its curse.
Its honesty is such that we forget the time and place the novel is set. No one in the novel dwells on those facts, but they are why Huck's thinking is so labored: he has so internalized the core assumptions about slavery that he literally doesn't question them. They are a priori for him. He only questions--and condemns--his own defiance of those assumptions and the laws arising from them. We may wonder why Jim, a grown man, seems so subservient to Huck at times; the answer is simple but profound in its implications for the novel: Huck is white. Neither overtly states that in the novel, but neither has to. Those are the rules everyone accepts and plays by. No one, ever, in Huckleberry Finn questions the legitimacy of slavery in the abstract: Huck doesn't become an Abolitionist, and neither does Jim. Both make the decisions they do based on purely personal interests. That fact makes this novel hard to swallow for some.
Some years ago, I read an article by a man whose teenage son was reading Huckleberry Finn, and the man decided to reread it. He came to the conclusion that while he didn't think the novel was racist, he felt that it was too difficult a novel for high school kids to grasp and thus shouldn't be taught at that level. Hmm, I thought: Huck is 12 or 13 in the novel . . . and maybe, as I said earlier, its difficulties are precisely its point. What better age than high school--the age in which students are growing in their awareness of who they are and what connects us to/separates us from others? "Why is is so hard for Huck to see Jim as a human being?" Asking that question in a high school classroom would open up all sorts of delicious cans of worms--assuming the teacher is brave enough, sure enough of himself/herself, to gaze in on those worms and begin to pull them out, one after excruciating one.

There may be still more to this. Stay tuned.

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