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Uproar in the Classroom

By Robert Zalisk | HUMANITIES, January/February 2000 | Volume 21, Number 1

"I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: 'All right, then, I'll go to hell.'"

This is a fourteen-year-old boy at the moment he decides he will be true to a fellow runaway who has helped and befriended him. To do that, to help his friend, he will have to steal and deceive. He will have to do wrong. He knows this, even as he knows what will happen to him for doing wrong--perhaps one of the few things he's ever been taught thoroughly.

So: Betray his friend--and probably be well rewarded. Help his friend--and suffer perdition.

This is a story for children, and many claim it to be our national myth.

The child is Huckleberry Finn. The friend he decides to help is Jim, a runaway slave. The time and place are the 1840s in the United States of America, where slavery is legal, common, and generally accepted.

Huck's story and how it is told have been controversial since Mark Twain's novel was first published over a century ago. That controversy is the central theme of Born to Trouble: "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," a ninety-minute television documentary supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The program is the first in a four-part PBS series on art and controversy entitled Culture Shock.

"Making the film turned out to be an intellectual journey," producer and cowriter Jill Janows says. Janows is executive producer for cultural programming at WGBH-TV in Boston. "At the start," she says, "I was aware of the critique of the novel in terms of its alleged racial stereotypes. I also knew the book was considered to be a great work and Twain a great writer. But I didn't really understand the depth of feeling about both of those things."

That intellectual journey took Janows back into the book itself, into American history, and into an exploration of the life of Samuel Clemens, the man behind the pen name Mark Twain. Janows wanted a viewer to be able to take the same journey, and she structured Born to Trouble accordingly. Several narratives are woven together: Huck and Jim's plight; the social setting of Twain's childhood home in Hannibal, Missouri, in the 1840s; the circumstances of Twain's life in the 1870s and 1880s when he wrote the novel; slavery in the 1840s and attitudes toward African Americans then and later; contemporary readings of Huck Finn; and contemporary perceptions and sensitivities with respect to race, racial stereotypes, and visions of America.

"We didn't want this to be just a documentary," says Leslie Lee, cowriter of Born to Trouble, who has worked with Janows before and also teaches at New York University and the New School. "We wanted a story. We needed someone we could follow, a protagonist, a person we could identify with. The idea was to pull people into it." Lee suggested including another narrative strand: a contemporary instance of controversy over the book.

One of the earliest instances of controversy came only a month after Huck Finn was published. The public library in Concord, Massachusetts--home of literary giants Emerson and Thoreau--banned the book, calling it "trash." It was, according to members of the Library Committee, "more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people." To such sensibilities, having someone like Huck be the narrator of a novel was shocking. Huck's low class, vernacular speech, unconventional habits: It just wasn't done.

Controversy today focuses less on class than on race. And race was the instigating spark in the dispute at the McClintock High School in Tempe, Arizona, which is shown in the program. The objections students and parents expressed have to do with Twain's abundant use of the "n" word, with what they see as his stereotypical and demeaning portrayal of Jim and other African Americans, and with their feeling that being required to read and discuss such depictions, especially for African Americans, is painful and offensive.

As Lee anticipated, in following the participants in this dispute, the various narrative strands of the program come together. Story, setting, social circumstances, past, and present are made immediate. The program does become more than "just a documentary." We see that these issues matter.

The charge that Twain was a racist is approached in two ways in Born to Trouble. One is through interpretations that are offered of several important junctures in the story--where Jim continues to journey South with Huck, for example, even after they miss the turnoff to the North. These interpretations describe a Jim that is too able, too clever, and too caring to be the product of a racist sensibility. If the viewer accepts these interpretations, he or she will be less inclined to judge Twain himself as being a racist.

The second approach is more direct. Twain scholars present some particulars of the author's life and some of his expressed attitudes. These facts and attitudes argue that Twain was not a racist. Jocelyn Chadwick Joshua, for example, currently at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, points to the fondness Twain expressed for Uncle Daniel, a slave he knew as a child, and of whom he wrote: "I have staged him in books under his own name and as 'Jim.'" Shelley Fisher Fishkin, a professor at the University of Texas, Austin, relates several anecdotes about Twain and African Americans, including Twain's efforts to help the first African American student at Yale Law School.

Twain's language, as the Concord library bears witness, got him into trouble from the start. "The language said 'ain't,' for God's sake!" writer and teacher David Bradley says in the program. Twain was striving for realism, and in actual speech people do use "ain't." Similarly, his defenders argue, in the 1840s people did use the "n" word the way Twain uses it in Huck. It's how whites commonly referred to slaves, and that's what Twain was trying to show--but showing it doesn't mean he agreed with or accepted it. By the 1880s, however, the word already was not acceptable in polite society, and a viewer can imagine Twain the humorist and satirist giving a little chuckle when the Concord Brahmins objected to "ain't"--and remained silent about the "n" word.

Twain's characterization of Jim, another objection commonly raised against Huck Finn today--and raised in the McClintock High School dispute--is layered. It is easy to read Jim as superficial, superstitious, stupid--an early stereotypical Steppin' Fetchit. Such an impression is only to be expected, however,since Jim is always presented through the sensibilities of Huck, a fourteen-year-old child brought up to believe just those things about all slaves. For most of the book the only glimmer of "the real Jim" is in what he says.

Jim's speech, however, always in dialect, has its problems. It plays both with and against social and literary expectations. In Twain's time--as remains largely true today--literary convention required that characters who spoke in dialect were to be either stupid or comic--or both. The casual reader still carries that expectation, and Jim can readily be seen simply as Huck's comic foil. But as Fisher Fishkin emphasizes in conversation, "Twain didn't make that assumption. He didn't assume that because someone didn't speak grammatically he was unintelligent." Also, Twain often just couldn't refrain from having fun with some of his favorite targets. When Jim discusses Solomon's wisdom with Huck--just one such passage--all of these elements are at play:

.....I's Sollermun; en dish-yer dollar bill's de chile. Bofe un you claims it. What does I do? Does I shin aroun' mongs' de neighbors en fine out which un you de bill do b'long to, en han' it over to de right one, all safe en soun', de way dat anybody dat had any gumption would? No--I take en whack de bill in two.....

But if words are an unsure guide to Jim's character, his actions, Bradley argues, are not. At that juncture in the story when Huck and Jim miss the Ohio, the turnoff to the North (where Jim will be free), Jim nevertheless continues to travel down river with Huck, deeper and deeper into slave country. Surely, continuing farther into the South is against Jim's self-interest. "Why doesn't Jim just get off that raft?" Bradley asks in the program.

Jim knows, Bradley answers his own question, that "Huck has no father." Bradley goes on: "I've always interpreted Jim's decision to stay with Huck as a realization that whatever was going on with Jim's life, that here was a child who needed protection." Jim chooses to stay with Huck--knowing it's at the risk of his own life--so that he can look after him and protect him. Is this--Bradley's question is unvoiced--the Jim a racist would portray?

As Born to Trouble unfolds, at least two themes that transcend the specifics of Huckleberry Finn emerge out of its weaving of fact and story, presentation and commentary: What is the role or function of controversial art? And, should children, our children, be required--forced--to study certain works they may find painful or humiliating or offensive?

Kathy Monteiro, mother of the Arizona honors student who first questioned having Huck Finn on the McClintock High School required reading list, clearly doesn't think so. Herself a teacher, in conversation she says, "I would never put a piece of literature over a child's welfare and well-being. Bottom line: A book and a dead author are not more important to me than a child's life."

That is a sentiment with which few people would disagree. Does it, however, accurately characterize what goes on in a classroom? In reading or not reading a book, are the stakes truly a child's life? "We cannot avoid being hurt," Bradley reminds us in Born to Trouble. "If the word 'nigger' did not have meaning today, we wouldn't care that it was in Huckleberry Finn. The hurt is that it still does have meaning. The hurt is that what happens on the playground is reflected in the book, not the other way around."

Given the pain and the hurt, the disappointment and the despair the world holds for all of us, is there any better way, any safer way, to confront those demons than through the mediation of art? Or, to embrace and share the joy and the excitement, the satisfaction and the hope the world also holds? Lee sees art as a medicine, a healer. Chadwick Joshua finds it transformative. Fisher Fishkin believes it "is the best training for understanding how to read between the lines of life."

"If we try to banish works that some people feel are painful," says producer Janows, "we'll be left with nothing to teach. The question is how to teach, and how to teach successfully--with respect for all students as well as for the works being taught."

In the end, Born to Trouble does not so much come to a conclusion as it accumulates testimony, statements of belief--reflected here--by the participants in the program. If no one certain answer is provided, the search for it, Janows's "intellectual journey," provides its own reward.

"Art is supposed to be controversial," says Bradley. "The fact that someone is offended by something doesn't mean, first of all, that it isn't good art; and secondly, that's not the end of the argument. We don't just not deal with it because it's controversial. The controversy itself is what the value is."

Robert Zalisk is a freelance writer in Lexington, Massachusetts.

Born to Trouble: "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," the first in the WGBH series called Culture Shock, airs Wednesday, January 26, at 9 p.m. on PBS. NEH has provided $776,890 in funding to the series and for accompanying teacher guides and curriculum materials. A website on the Culture Shock series can be found at here.