Filed under: Conservatism, Election 2010, History, Liberalism, Politics | Tags: Huckleberry Finn, Reading the Constitution, The 112th Congress
Oh dear, it’s apparently time again for the Huckleberry Finn controversy. Mark Twain published Huckleberry Finn 126 years ago, and it has been widely considered one of the great American classics ever since. With great frequency, since the late 1950s, mothers of schoolchildren have been horrified to find that a book that their children have been required to read contains the “N” word.
Calls for the removal of Huck Finn from reading lists have been regular occurrences. Huck Finn is the fourth most banned book in the U.S. A., according to Twain scholar Alan Gribben who is working with a small Southern publishing company to publish an edition in which the “N” word, which appears 219 times, is replaced by the word “slave.” Tom Sawyer uses the word four times.
Of course outrage has arisen. “Censorship.” Bowdlerization,” but it’s “Art.” And so forth. Ideas about what is proper reading for children have always been a matter of controversy. Books that are somewhat “different” or address uncomfortable subjects usually provoke mothers by the dozens, usually mothers who are not widely read themselves.
I was lucky. I was blessed with parents who didn’t particularly supervise my reading, for I was a voracious reader. Things that were over my head simply did not register. When I was in 8th grade, our teacher was reading National Velvet to us in class, eliminating all the bad words like damn or hell. We checked out the book at lunchtime to see what she was leaving out. At home I was reading The Big Sky, by A.B. Guthrie Jr., which led my teacher to call my mother to find out if she knew. She did.
Mark Twain was writing about a world and a time when racism was common, and making some important points about it. Sometimes novelists can get closer to the truth of an era than historians can. There’s controversy about that among historians.
There is a segment of society that wants desperately to rewrite history. To make the past agree with what they believe to be true today. They are ashamed of the past as it was, and want it not to be so; and they don’t want others to know that it was as it was. History is what happened. We no longer chop off people’s heads nor do we burn them at the stake. Most of us no longer believe in witches. Though in some societies these things still happen.
This is in part the same controversy that has arisen over the Republicans’ reading of the U.S. Constitution on the floor of the House. From the interesting comments of Ezra Klein to the folks on MSNBC, they simply do not understand the use of reading the document, when every legislator must swear an oath to:
solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.
This is hard for Democrats who look upon the Constitution as an old-fashioned document that is hard to understand and is simply nor appropriate for the 21st century. Am I ranging too far afield to draw these comparisons?
Democrats insist upon an “evolving” Constitution, not one that can be amended when it seems necessary. Do remember the Eighteenth Amendment (Prohibition) was ratified January 16, 1919, and repealed by the Twenty-First Amendment, on December 5, 1933. This is pertinent only as a reminder that this is how the Constitution “evolves,” rather than in courtrooms or the halls of Congress. It does not “evolve” according to what is currently popular in European courts.
It was a good thing that the Constitution was read in the House today, and that both Democrats and Republicans participated. It was of course, a stunt of sorts, but perhaps a very necessary one. Will it send citizens scurrying to get their own copy of the Constitution? The Cato Institute has a dandy little pocket edition that contains both the Declaration and the Constitution. The Huck Finn controversy will end up where all the previous controversies have, and seems even sillier in the era of popularity of rap music. It’s hardly like kids do not hear the “N” word in full.
The world is not improved by attempting to alter history to make the unpleasant parts more palatable. History is to be studied to see what we can learn. Human nature is fixed, but we can only learn from our mistakes and successes and the mistakes and successes of those who have gone before. Ignoring history is a recipe for disaster.