The purpose of this project is to celebrate Samuel L. Clemens' life in Redding, Connecticut by documenting and showcasing his time here in multiple formats both online and offline. Your donations & site sponsorships will help me dedicate more time to these projects and allow me to get them online sooner.

Thursday, March 24

Teaching Twain- How to end the N-Word Controversy

Since Alan Gribben's edited version of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn became a topic of interest and debate, many Twain scholars have been asked to explain and/or defend why the "N-word" exists in Huckleberry Finn. Unfortunately, no matter how well we articulate our answers, to some our reasoning is wrong. They say: "But what if it opens up the book to more young people?" and of that opinion there are many that nod in agreement.

But the truth is, even if by changing a couple words you opened up the book to millions of new readers... the whole point of the book involves the "N-word" as a hate word, the racism fueling this hatred and how it eventually dawns on Huck that this type of behavior and hatred is wrong. So by removing the "N-word" you lose the impact of the hatred that Twain is not only pointing out but calling out in 1885.

What many do not realize is that: In many ways Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is autobiographical. Although the Missouri he grew up in was not a part of the Confederacy, it was a slave state and slavery was defended by all public institutions, including churches. Twain's own parents had several slaves and his relationship with the slaves and their children was very influential in his later writings. One of the slaves that influenced Twain's life was a middle aged slave known to him as "Uncle Dan'l" He'd later recall the "privileged nights" he, his cousins and the slave children all clustered at Dan'l's feet to hear him tell his thunderous stories.

"He has served me well, these many, many years... spiritually I have had his welcome company... and have staged him in books as his own name and as "Jim"... It was on the farm that I got my strong liking for his race and my appreciation of... its fine qualities."

His childhood experiences would clearly leave a legacy of guilt that he would later lash out at in his speeches and literary works and attempt to lessen through charitable donations to African-American individuals and their causes. In his Notebook #35 he writes:

"In those slave-holding days the whole community was agreed as to one thing- the awful sacredness of slave property. It shows that that strange thing, the conscience - the unerring monitor - can be trained to approve any wild thing you want it to approve if you begin its education early and stick to it."

In Chapter 38 of Following the Equator, he provides us with an pointed example of what he wrote in Notebook #35:

"When I was ten years old I saw a man fling a lump of iron-ore at a slave-man in anger, for merely doing something awkwardly- as if that were a crime. It bounded from the man's skull, and the man fell and never spoke again. He was dead in an hour... Nobody in the village approved of that murder, but of course no one said much about it."

In that very same notebook, reprinted in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Univ. of California Press, 2003, he writes in reference to Huck Finn:

"A book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat."

Clearly, Twain's personal history paralleled Huckleberry Finn's and given the fact that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn took Twain 8 years to write, he used the words he used for a reason. To give that statement some weight, I'll add that between manuscript 1 and 2, he made more than 1,700 revisions. 88 percent of these revisions being: word changes, spelling, punctuation and adding emphasis. Twain was not using the "N-word" because he was racist, he was using it to make a point. Removing or altering the words Twain himself wrote is misguided, the fact that a Twain scholar is the one doing it is down right vexing but it is what it is.

So what is the solution? My solution is to put Adventure of Huckleberry Finn on hold for a while. Students don't understand it's meaning and most teachers don't have the time or interest to help them understand it, so I say we go in a new direction. What if we taught Mark Twain in our school systems instead? Mark Twain's life isn't a hard sell, and once you're hooked, you're hooked. Imagine if children *wanted* to read Mark Twain and as they read Mark Twain they understood and appreciated what he was saying in those texts. That is my solution to the "N-word Controversy," teach our children about Mark Twain and show them the unique life experiences he had that made him who he was and fueled the novels that he wrote.

To promote this concept, I have created an online PowerPoint preview to provide school administrators and their staff with a visual of how Twain's life could be presented in their classrooms.

Online presentations and videos are becoming very popular these days because they deliver information at budget friendly numbers that allow both schools and home schoolers to provide unique learning experiences to their students. Independent scholars are becoming increasingly aware of the advantages of producing online resources and are profiting from the extensive reach and viral potential these resources hold.

In future articles I'll update you on the progress I make with the "Understanding Twain" effort.

Brent M. Colley is an independent Mark Twain Advocate who promotes Twain's life and legacy actively via this blog and his twitter account: