What is perhaps most noteworthy about the bizarre onslaught in Fairfax County against "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" is that it arises from a complete misreading of the novel. As interpreted by the members of the Human Relations Committee of Mark Twain Intermediate School, "Huckleberry Finn" bears virtually no resemblance to the novel that Mark Twain actually wrote. One member of that committee, John H. Wallace, describes the novel as follows:
"The book is poison. It is anti-American; it works against the melting-pot theory of our country; it works against the idea that all men are created equal; it works against the 14th Amendment to the Constitution and against the preamble that guarantees all men life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
Short of describing "Huckleberry Finn" as crypto-fascist propaganda with socialist-realist, communist-naturalist, secular-humanist influences, it would be difficult to come up with a less perceptive reading of the novel. That Wallace's motives are honorable--he feels that Twain's depiction of Jim, the runaway slave, is stereotypical and therefore demeaning to blacks, and he wishes to shield young readers from it--does not excuse his distortion of the novel's central themes in order to engineer its removal from the classrooms, if not the library, at his school. Further, he makes the crucial mistake of holding a novel written in the late 19th century to standards and attitudes that did not become generally accepted until the late 20th.
There are, so far as I can tell, few significant parallels between the attempt to eliminate "Huckleberry Finn" from the curriculum of a school named in its author's honor and the recent campaign against Studs Terkel's "Working" in a Pennsylvania school system. The movement in Pennsylvania originated with parents and was motivated by a desire, however naive and misguided, to prevent the schools from exposing their children to language they found objectionable. In Fairfax County, by contrast, the campaign seems to be largely the work of one man who, as an administrator of the school and a member of its Human Relations Committee, is in an unusually favorable position to advance his own views and to impose them upon others.
While rushing to defend "Huckleberry Finn" against Wallace's attack, I should also hasten to say that I am wholly sympathetic with his reaction to the novel. By the standards that our society observes in 1982, Twain's portrayal of Jim and his incessant use of the word "nigger" are offensive. That "nigger" was commonly and casually employed in 1884, when the novel was published, and that Jim's dialect and behavior as represented by Twain are probably faithful to the time and place, does not make either the language or the stereotype any easier to swallow for the late 20th-century reader, whatever his or her color.
But however understandable and legitimate Wallace's objections may be, his reading of the novel is astonishingly superficial--and for a professional educator, downright irresponsible. Looking at "Huckleberry Finn" as he does, all that Wallace seems to see is the recurrence of "nigger" and the depiction of Jim as a precursor of Stepin Fetchit. No doubt he would dismiss, and despise, this paragraph as "racist":
"I went to sleep, and Jim didn't call me when it was my turn. He often done that. When I waked up just at daybreak he was sitting there with his head down betwixt his knees, moaning and mourning to himself. I didn't take notice nor let on. I knowed what it was about. He was thinking about his wife and his children, away up yonder, and he was low and homesick; because he hadn't ever been away from home before in his life; and I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks does for their'n. It don't seem natural, but I reckon it's so. He was often moaning and mourning that way nights, when he judged I was asleep, and saying, 'Po' little 'Lizabeth! po' little Johnny! it's mighty hard; I spec' I ain't ever gwyne to see you no mo', no mo'!' He was a mighty good nigger, Jim was."
The point of this passage is not that Jim is a "nigger" who talks like a stereotype, but that he is a human being with feelings and urges as deep and complex as those of the white boy who observes him--if not, in fact, considerably deeper and more complex. Another point is that this boy, raised by a racist father in a racist society, comes to understand and value Jim's humanity through prolonged, intimate association with him. Yet another point is that Twain, a native southerner, wrote "Huckleberry Finn" at a time when the slightest suggestion of sympathy for blacks was regarded as heretical both north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line; yet as his biographer, Justin Kaplan, has observed, Twain had "explicit sympathy for the Negro" and a "level vision of the brutalities of a slaveholding society," and he had the courage to express these views when all but the smallest minority was in violent disagreement with them.
It is, when you pause to reflect upon it, preposterous--not to mention ludicrous, outrageous and absurd--that in what represents itself as an enlightened age we should have to defend Mark Twain, of all people, and his great novel, of all books, against an attack as petty and pusillanimous as this one. What is perhaps even more preposterous is that this attack is being made, its forces allege, in defense of precisely the same values that Twain celebrated in "Huckleberry Finn": freedom, humanity, decency, equality, humility, simple kindness.
That being the case, I can only assume that Wallace and his Human Relations Committee have undertaken this wholly gratuitous enterprise because they do not have the foggiest idea what "Huckleberry Finn" is about. If that is so, what in heaven's name are they doing presiding over the education of the young? Would they ban "Moby Dick" as vivisectionist, or "The Great Gatsby" as anti-Semitic? If men and women who cannot identify the most basic themes of a work of fiction that for nearly a century has been analyzed to a fare-thee-well by critics, scholars and ordinary students, then perhaps they should find another line of work.
Or else, since they are educators, they could take a stab at educating. Instead of retreating behind the curtain of censorship, they could try to tell their students something about what America was like in 1884 and what Mark Twain was saying, in "Huckleberry Finn," about that society. They could point out to their students, if indeed they understand it themselves, that "Huckleberry Finn" is, beneath its veneer of satire and folk humor, a dark and tormented meditation upon the conflict between the individual's yearning for freedom and friendship on the one hand, and the restrictions and prejudices imposed by society on the other. They could point out that "nigger," a word that we now properly regard as an obscenity, was then in general use among the genteel as well as the common.
They could point out, were they so inclined, that if anything it is a sign of how far we have progressed that we are uncomfortable with things in "Huckleberry Finn" that were accepted as normal when it was published. They could point out that the human capacity for moral and social growth is a marvelous thing, but that such growth cannot diminish the greatness of a work of art. Do we spurn "Othello" because of the Moor or "The Merchant of Venice" because of Shylock? Of course not. We look instead to the works of art, and to the extraordinary human being who made them. We do not dismiss them as racist because their author was not so fortunate as to live in an age that regards itself as holding a monopoly on righteousness, an age that regards the longstanding popularity of "The Jeffersons" as evidence of its commitment to racial tolerance.
Well. "Huckleberry Finn" has had its other critics. In the spring of 1885, Louisa May Alcott huffed and puffed ("If Mr. Clemens cannot think of something better to tell our pure-minded lads and lasses, he had best stop writing for them"), and the novel was banned by the Library Committee of Concord, Mass. It survived that blow, and it will survive this one. In fact, it should not be a bit of a surprise if, as a result of the publicity afforded it by John H. Wallace and the other guardians of "human relations," the novel enjoys a hearty revival in Fairfax County and environs. That would be good news, and a twist that its author would enjoy.