Let the Kids Read

In today’s Times, author Lorrie Moore weighs in on the Huck Finn controversy triggered last week by the publisher NewSouth Books’ announcement that it would come out with a new edition that replaces the 219 uses of the word “nigger” with the ostensibly less offensive “slave.” Moore argues that both poles of the debate–the one decrying censorship of an American literary classic, the other supporting the publisher’s efforts to render the book more accessible to high school students, especially African-American boys–are wrong. Says Moore, “The remedy is to refuse to teach this novel in high school and to wait until college — or even graduate school — where it can be put in proper context.”

Moore’s main contention is that “‘Huckleberry Finn’ is not an appropriate introduction to serious literature.” It’s simply too complex for the high school mind. So is the common young adult favorite To Kill a Mockingbird on account of  “its social-class caricatures and racially naïve narrator.” Suggests Moore, “‘Huckleberry Finn’ is suited to a college course in which Twain’s obsession with the 19th-century theater of American hucksterism — the wastrel West, the rapscallion South, the economic strays and escapees of a harsh new country — can be discussed in the context of Jim’s particular story (and Huck’s).”

Moore’s argument about age-appropriateness might ring true if she were objecting to teaching Huck Finn in elementary school, but not  to high schoolers–16, 17, 18-year-olds. Does she mean to say that students of this age cohort, some of them vested with the legal right to vote or choose to join the army, are incapable of wrapping their heads around the historical complexities of racism in the antebellum South?

Most alarming is the suggestion that high schoolers are, according to Moore, just starting their literary lives. If true, that’s by far the most serious problem in all of this. I first read To Kill a Mockingbird, one of Moore’s designated inappropriate-until-college novels, in eighth grade, and I know that for me and a number of my classmates, it remains one our most rewarding literary experiences. I’ve kept a short list of my favorite quotes for the last four or five years now, and Atticus Finch’s reflection on the meaning of courage to his kids after Mrs. Dubose’s death–“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand.  It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.  You rarely win, but sometimes you do”–has been at the top of the list from the very beginning. Even then, we were sophisticated enough readers to know not to take Scout’s naive observations at face value, and if we did, that’s why we had a teacher to offer the necessary historical or social context. Come to think of it, I read a lot of books in English class that year that I suspect Ms. Moore would find deeply dangerous to the impressionable minds of pre-college teenagers–Farenheit 451, Animal Farm, Of Mice and Men. As best I can tell, none left any permanent damage on me or my classmates.

I read Huck Finn in my 11th grade American lit class, and once again the difficulties presented by its depiction of the ugliness of American racism were far from insurmountable. Moore and several other commentators this week have rightly pointed out just how tricky it is to teach Huck Finn, especially in a class with African-American students. In my own class, out-loud readings of passages with the dreaded word were laden with the inevitable discomfort and awkwardness. But as so many others have pointed out, that discomfort is very much part and parcel of the Huck Finn-reading experience–the forced reckoning with our country’s ugly racist past. And through great teaching, our discussion of race in the book moved beyond a superficial analysis of how Twain uses the n-word to call attention to the inhumanity of American racism to a deeper discussion of  Twain’s own tendency to ridicule Jim as a black man and hold him up as a source of comedic relief. Our unit culminated in a debate over whether or not Huck Finn is a racist book, and to this day, I’m still not entirely sold one way or the other.

If Moore is so concerned about high schoolers’ first encounter with serious literature being a text she deems as problematic as Huck Finn, the answer is surely to begin exposing students to “serious literature” at an earlier age rather than pushing back the study of American classics like Huck Finn until college. If Moore were to get her way, untold numbers of young Americans would be deprived of experiencing these books altogether, whether because they didn’t go to college or, like most college students, didn’t take an American lit course while there.

Don’t deny American youngsters the thrill of engaging one of American literature’s truly great works based on some condescending view of the country’s high schoolers’ intelligence level, Ms. Moore. Believe me, they can handle it.

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