Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Monday, October 22, 2012


When I returned to teach at Western Reserve Academy in the fall of 2001, I brought my friend Huck along with me.  He stayed.  Each year until the spring of 2010 (when I retired), I taught Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as the final major text of the year.  I loved it.

Although I arranged the English III course in fairly chronological fashion, I always withheld Huck--for a variety of reasons.  For one thing, I thought it brought a little--what?--lightness to the pressure-packed end of the year (many of my students were preparing for AP exams).  Yes, the issues in Huck are far from light--but the story itself (the escape on the raft, floating for freedom), the youthful narrator, the tension and the humor and even the violence--all of this contributed, I always felt, to some greatly needed pleasure for the juniors at year's end.

And, of course, the race issue.  Throughout the year I'd been directing students' attention to various ways American writers have dealt with (or not dealt with) the question of race.  In "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," for example, there is a black musician at the Halloween party ... how does Washington Irving portray him?  A black character brings Ichabod Crane his invitation to the party ... how does Irving portray him?  Take a look ... the servant arrives at Ichabod's classroom ...

It was suddenly interrupted by the appearance of a negro in tow-cloth jacket and trowsers, a round-crowned fragment of a hat, like the cap of Mercury, and mounted on the back of a ragged, wild, half-broken colt, which he managed with a rope by way of halter. He came clattering up to the school door with an invitation to Ichabod to attend a merry-making or "quilting frolic," to be held that evening at Mynheer Van Tassel's; and having delivered his message with that air of importance, and effort at fine language, which a negro is apt to display on petty embassies of the kind, he dashed over the brook, and was seen scampering away up the hollow, full of the importance and hurry of his mission.

Or in Kate Chopin's The Awakening, an important novel in American literary history.  Set in and around New Orleans, the story focuses on upper-class white characters.  But Chopin shows us the African Americans, too, nearly invisible in the whites' eyes.  One little black girl operates by hand the treadle of a sewing machine because it's too hot for the white woman to use her feet!

Or Melville's "Benito Cereno,"1855, a long short story about a rebellion aboard a slave ship.

By the time we reached Huck, I felt, students had a sense of the racial component of American literary history.  They were also ready for the allusions to Hamlet and other Shakespearean plays that Twain parodies aboard the raft.

I did two other things that I thought prepared them for the controversies surrounding the novel.  I had them all buy the University of California Press edition of the novel--the best there is in my view--a heavily annotated edition, complete with maps and diagrams.  (Maps are crucial, I believe; in the case of Huck, for example, they answer the question: "Why was Jim fleeing south if he we seeking freedom?)  The tacit message of such a scholarly volume: This is an important text.

Second, before we began reading and discussing, I showed them the Huck Finn segment of Ken Burns' 2002 documentary film Mark Twain, a twenty-two-minute portion that briefly summarizes the story and its contexts (with some lovely Mississippi River footage), but Burns also interviews major writers Arthur Miller, William Styron, and Russell Banks, all of whom rave about Twain and the novel.

And better yet: Burns records the commentary of Twain scholar Joycelyn Chadwick, who spoke emotionally about Twain's portrayal of Jim.  Chadwick is black.  And Burns assembled some other prominent blacks speaking positively about the novel, too--including Dick Gregory and writer David Bradley, who spoke about that gorgeous moment when Huck decides he will not turn in runaway Jim, even though he believes he will go to hell as a result.

I found that these twenty-two minutes of video virtually eliminated the discomfort we all felt in the presence of the word nigger in Huckleberry Finn.  The word remains wrenching, of course, but these writers and scholars helped students see the context of that horrible word and helped students understand Twain's artful use of it, coming as it does from the mouth of a white, uneducated Mississippi River boy in ante-bellum America.

As Russell Banks says in the video, slavery and race are America's original sin ("the sin at our inception," he says), and Mark Twain's masterpiece--told by a mere boy--puts that sin right in front of us and says, "See how ugly this is?"  And implies: "And just what are you going to do about it?"

TOMORROW--Some final words (I promise!) on Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

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