This is a big anniversary year for Mark Twain. We're well into the 150th anniversary of his birth, the 75th anniversary of his death and the 100th anniversary of the U.S. publication of his major work, "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," all of which are commemorated at an exhibit that opened last Thursday at the National Geographic Society.
In recent years, however, Twain has been in the public eye in a far less desirable way. Many school districts have banned "Huckleberry" outright or taken it off required reading lists on the grounds that it is racist, primarily because of Twain's frequent use of the ugly word "nigger" in the narrative and dialogue.
It is the fate of great literature to be misread and misunderstood as well as savored and appreciated, and "Huckleberry Finn" is great literature.
It is profoundly moral, deeply anti-racist and anti- slavery, which is the root of racism in this country. The dialect of Jim and other blacks and the use of the word "nigger" may be upsetting to black children, as some of the book's critics contend, but it ought to be required reading for all children of all races and creeds because of the moral decision Huck is forced to make.
It's the sort of decision that we teach our children to make and can only hope they'll do it when it counts -- to stand up to wrongful societal pressures and do what's right. Decisions on cheating, lying, sex, drugs and other moral and ethical matters may not be as far-reaching as Huck's, but they obviously are of great importance.
I read "Huckleberry Finn" aloud to my stepson when he was about 10. I read it over and over as a boy, so many times that every sentence is a familiar and treasured friend; I don't know it by heart, but it seems that I do.
Like all great literature, the book can be appreciated on several levels.
It is a terrific picaresque adventure story, with comedy and dramatic tension, that should appeal to most children. It is a great historical novel -- we have a better sense of life in the antebellum Mississippi valley than of any other region or time in our history.
One reason for this is Twain's exquisite ear for the dialects of the area and the period, which is a major source of anguish to "Huckleberry's" critics. In a preface to the original U.S. edition, Twain cautioned:
"In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods South-Western dialect; the ordinary 'Pike County' (Mo.) dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a hap-hazard fashion or by guess-work; but pains-takingly, and with . . . personal familiarity with these several forms of speech."
The result is a vernacular of the day that gives the novel an artistic cohesion, poetic description, comedy, drama, irony and a vivid view of characters, events and emotions through Huck's eyes.
It would be impossible to do the novel without using the word "nigger," which was common usage in a region and period dominated and obsessed by slavery. A footnote to the annotated corrected version of the first U.S. edition says, "Huck appropriately speaks the colloquial word used in the South to describe black slaves; it is not used derisively or contemptuously."
But you don't need footnotes to realize that "Huckleberry" is profoundly anti-racist -- the humanity and generosity and warmth of Jim tells you that. Jim, after all, wanted his freedom so he could buy his wife and children out of slavery and live in the North as a freedman, and his anguish over their separation is as eloquent as any in literature.
Compare Jim with the whites -- Huck's depraved, villainous "Pap"; the "king" and the "duke," those scrofulous con men who deservedly wind up tarred and feathered; the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons, who are busily slaughtering each other in a murderous family feud.
Even Huck. When they get separated in the fog, Jim on the raft and Huck in the canoe, and Huck finally, luckily finds the raft with Jim in an exhausted sleep, he tries with a silly, boyish prank to convince Jim that the harrowing event never happened, that Jim dreamed it.
When Jim finally realizes from the damage and debris on the raft that it did happen, he teaches Huck a real lesson.
" . . . my heart was mos' broke bekase you wuz los', en I didn' k'yer no mo' what become er me en de raf'. En when I wake up en fine you back agin', all safe en soun', de tears come en I could a got down on my knees end kiss yo foot I's so thankful. En all you wuz think' 'bout wuz how you could make a fool uv ole Jim wid a lie." Unsmiling, he goes into the "wigwam" shelter they constructed on the raft.
Huck's response: "It made me feel so mean I could almost kissed his foot to get him to take it back. It was 15 minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger -- but I done it and I warn't ever sorry for it afterwards, neither."
Huck's conditioning to slavery leads him several times to the belief that he should return Jim to Miss Watson, and he pencils a note to her telling her where Jim is, which made him feel "good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life . . . ."
But he remembers all of Jim's kindnesses, his generosities, their friendship and undergoes his epiphany; the Mississippi River is Huck's road to Damascus.
"I was a trembling because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things. . . . I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: 'All right, then, I'll go to hell' -- and tore it up."
Huck literally thought he would go to hell. It's one of the great moments in literature -- and the decision we all hope we would make.
A director of the Mark Twain Memorial says that there are letters in the exhibition at the National Geographic that prove that Twain was not a racist by any conceivable measure, that he describes slavery as "grotesque."
That's fine, but no one who reads "Huckleberry Finn" needs any other documentation.