IN THE DEAR dead days of yore, Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" was banned from certain schools and libraries because it was deemed subversive of the common morality--which of course it was. It mocked the notions of respectability then current and exposed the religious and social hypocrisy of the time. Besides, its characters used bad language and worse grammar; its hero, the young Huck, was a fabulous liar altogether too engaging for comfort; and too, he rode down the Mississippi on a raft with a black man, a runaway slave named Jim, who was the kindest and most morally attractive character in the book. The book, in other words, offended all those illiberal and small-minded social values that most richly deserved to be offended.
You will have guessed we think it is a wonderful book and that we believe the students at the Mark Twain Intermediate School in Fairfax County ought to be able to read it in class without hiding it behind a plain brown wrapper.
You heard right. The Human Relations Committee and the principal of the school that bears the author's name--the irony is obvious, even oppressive--have recommended that Mark Twain's quintessentially American masterpiece and one of the true classics of 19th century literature be removed from the curriculum because they believe it racist. But in fact, the novel satirizes the racist attitudes of the time and if, as one of its opponents says, it is asinine to expect a seventh-grader to understand satire, then we have to ask if it is not equally asinine to expect him to understand--on his own--mathematics or history or science or anything else. We always thought that's why we had teachers, to explain and guide and--dare we suggest it?--teach. Surely they are there to help kids understand things in their context, to appreciate them.
At least the officials of the Mark Twain Intermediate School do literature the honor of taking it seriously, and they recognize one truth, if in a slightly cockeyed way: "Huckleberry Finn" is dangerous, for Huck, in helping Jim escape to freedom, discards the conventional "moral" code he has always taken for granted; and no one who has seriously read or understood his story should be able to accept without irony or question the less reputable, so-called "moral" assumptions of the society in which he lives.