Well, it's about time.
They are about to pitch Mark Twain's masterpiece, "Huckleberry Finn," out of the classroom at the Twain School hereabouts somewhere because the book has naughty words in it. It calls blacks niggers.
Since the school bears Twain's name, it has a special responsibility to ban Twain's masterpiece from the classroom, and you can only marvel that it took them so long to get round to it.
It is high time, while we're about it, for the Walt Whitman School to ban Whitman's verse, and I like to think Loyola and St. Francis Xavier's high schools are getting rid of Loyola and Xavier (in whose works I have found a number of things I strongly disagree with).
One trouble with all the writers mentioned so far is that school censorship committees have had no trouble at all understanding them.
"The book is poison," said one school functionary of old Huck. The book is "anti-American," zub, zub, zub, and it's only a miracle the Constitution has not already toppled because of it. As they correctly point out in their argument, Huck works against the 14th Amendment and the preamble to the Declaration that demands life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
I should like to support the Twain School in this. I noticed years ago that Huckleberry was bringing death, imprisonment and misery to the nation, but I had no official platform from which to take off. I had to observe and remain silent. Now, thanks to brave men at Twain School, it is out in the open and the nation and the Constitution may yet be saved. Though time is of the essence.
The problem is by no means limited to Mark Twain and Huckleberry. In passing, I feel world peace is endangered by another of Twain's books, "A Connecticut Yankee," which mocks the grandeur of England. As I have said many times, there is no place in a decent man's library for any such book. And now our embattled cousins are sailing to the Falklands. The crisis arose in the first place because (thanks to Mark Twain) it became the custom on this side of the pond to titter at majesty. You see what it has led to.
Fortunately, the situation with masterpieces is not all negative, not a question of pitching them out of schools. At the very moment that an unfortunate (however necessary) crisis at Twain School was giving people the notion that we are anti-masterpiece, other heroes are working on Shakespeare and Beethoven in a quite positive and upbeat way.
Leonard Bernstein, this very week, adorned the television screen with a heroic improvement over anything Beethoven ever wrote; namely, his great quartet in C-sharp minor. Beethoven, who had rather poor judgment in such matters, wrote it for four strings, a failing which is common to many quartets.
Bernstein, who has given us the great "West Side Story" and other masterworks, saw long ago that this particular quartet could only reveal its inherent beauty if it were transcribed for a large orchestra. So instead of one paltry cello in the bass line, which was all Beethoven could think of, we were able to hear 208 cellos and 46 bass viols. Little subtleties, lost in performances of the quartet as Beethoven foolishly wrote it, suddenly became quite audible indeed. Hats off to men like Bernstein, whose genius permits them to improve so substantially on Beethoven himself. If God will only spare Bernstein long enough, we may yet hear the great Sonata in C-sharp minor (absurdly written for single piano) with all its potential beauty exposed in a transcription for French horns and trombones.
I think, in deference to Beethoven, and as partial explanation for his clumsy and rather slothful taste, that it should be remembered he was deaf.
On another front, positive improvements are under way for Shakespeare. The Wall Street Journal recently ran a splendid column calling for a general reworking of the whole Shakespeare canon, replacing many of Shakespeare's foolish words and, while they're about it, correcting many of his illiterate errors of grammar.
Many of his words are now obsolete. One has not the foggiest. Still other words in Shakespeare, while not obsolete, have changed their meaning so they no longer make sense.
The Wall Street Journal and its columnist admire Shakespeare tremendously. That is why they suggest rewriting him, to improve him so that ordinary folk can enjoy him. No more changes would be made than are strictly necessary, of course, since Shakespeare was not really a dismal talent--not at all; he really was quite good, actually, or would have been if his grammar were better.
And I can only hope that along with improving the wording here and there and correcting the grammar (double negatives, plural subjects with singular verbs, etc.) they will also correct some of that writer's overheated style.
Shakespeare did not have the advantage of a fine education. He had no chance to go to the University of Maryland, etc., and he had no Wall Street Journal to read every day, which might have assisted him to greater clarity and pith. You do not find these mad flights in The Wall Street Journal, and while Shakespeare's exuberance, his rambling and his froth, were forgivable in 1597 (the date of "King Richard II" as I recall), this heated style is hardly acceptable now, when we turn instead to The Wall Street Journal for our model of how the English tongue may sing.
Another thing. It occurred to me during the Bernstein improvement on Beethoven that many subtleties are lost in Shakespeare because (like Beethoven) he did not always have an enormous orchestra or chorus. So many fine things in Shakespeare are utterly lost, because they are intoned only by one actor. And sometimes the actor is lying down or has his back to us or is dying or something, and we lose the gorgeous line.
When Antony dies, in "Antony and Cleopatra," he is hauled up by ropes to the tower where Cleopatra is having a fit.
"I am dying, Egypt, dying," he cries feebly. And how often we miss the next line or two in which he begs death to hold off until "of many thousand kisses this poor last I lay upon thy lips."
I think that is lovely. The new edition should give the line to a chorus of 49 (adjutants, serving wenches, army cooks, etc.) so its beauty is not just thrown away and lost as it is now when spoken by an exhausted Antony.
The republic will take off on wings if in addition to getting rid of nasty and subversive books, we also improve Beethoven and Shakespeare (we have already improved the Bible in several positively stunning new editions) and all other artists who, while showing promise, yet leave much to be desired.