Dispatches | January 21, 2011

The publisher New South’s decision to put out a revised version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn scrubbed clean of its most inflammatory words has sparked a debate about censorship, both self-imposed and other-imposed. The new version contains an editorial introduction that explains the publisher’s motives. “Unquestionably,” writes editor Alan Gribben, “both novels [The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn] can be enjoyed just as deeply and authentically if readers are not obliged to confront the n-word on so many pages.”

Lorrie Moore broadens the discussion beyond that of a single inflammatory word to speak about the novel itself—its standing as a literary classic and its place in the classroom. “Huckleberry Finn,” she writes in a New York Times piece, “is not an appropriate introduction to serious literature.” She argues that the novel can’t help alienating many readers and is better avoided altogether in high school and saved for the college classroom, where “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 to keep the novel away from the classroom of younger readers concludes, “What would be helpful are school administrators who will break with tradition and bring more flexibility, imagination and social purpose to our high school curriculums.”

Based on my own experience, I’d argue that tradition—if by that Moore means an allegiance to the traditional canon—isn’t exactly at the root of why this novel, or many novels, get taught in the high school classroom. I think the reason is more about economics: the reason why many books get caught is that schools already own lots of copies.

I first got assigned Huckleberry Finn in the seventh grade. What other novel did we read that year? Shane. Why? Because the school owned a lot of copies of Shane. Why? I have no idea. I’m not even knocking Shane. I’m just saying that the reasons for assigning those two novels, as opposed to all others, had less to do with literary judgment and more to do with A) the school’s possession of multiple copies of those two novels, and B) that teacher’s past experience teaching them, probably as a result of A.

An era of extreme school budget cuts will mean more of the same. I’m guessing there are school administrators with “flexibility, imagination and social purpose.” But when money is tight, and you already have a closet full of books that have served you well, or well enough, in the past. . . .

There’s a Brady Bunch episode in which a talent scout convinces Greg that he’s got what it takes to become the pop star Johnny Bravo. Greg soon learns, however, that the reason he got singled out for the role had nothing to do with vocal talent. Rather, he fit the suit that the record company had already purchased. We can argue the merits of Huckleberry Finn—whether this version, that version, or no version ought to be taught to younger readers—but the reason it gets taught so much, I contend, often has less to do with actual, ongoing assessments of the work and its effect on students, and more to do with the fact that many schools, long ago, bought the suit.

Michael Kardos is the author of the story collection One Last Good Time. While earning his Ph.D. at the University of Missouri, he served as Contest Editor for The Missouri Review. He currently co-directs the creative writing program at Mississippi State University. His website is michaelkardos.com.