"It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world, and moral courage so rare."

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Mark Twain on Trial for Racism

It's the old, tired war-horse of American literary/cultural criticism: Was Mark Twain a racist? From my point of view, anyone who has ever actually gone to the trouble of reading his work and studying his life knows that the answer is a resounding "NO". Yet the issue persists, due mainly to the The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it's treatment of the character of Jim, and its frequent use of the word "nigger".

Yet the matter will be dealt with in amusing fashion next week at Greeley, Colorado's High Plains Chautaqua festival, in which students will put Mr. Twain (played by popular Twain impersonator McAvoy Lane) on mock trail, on charges of racism.

In writing about "The Trail of Mark Twain" in the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza, Layne postulates a closing argument:

"Today, 'Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ is a problematical text that carries dynamics for trouble into today’s classroom with its emotionally loaded nomenclature. When you first encounter the offensive epithet that appears over 200 times in the novel, it sears the eyeball; makes you want to set the work aside and be done with it. In 1885 this word, which comes from the Dutch word for black, was a kinder word than the word 'slave.' But the word has become the most powerful secular blasphemy in our language today and has several times the preemptive force than it did in the 1880’s.

But if you can get through that word, not around it, but through it, I believe you will discover ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ to be a strong indictment against prejudice and racism, and a central document to 19th-century cultural America.”

Layne's words ring true, as they should for anyone of intelligence. The fact that the argument even still persists is testament to the superficiality and misplaced hyper-sensitivity of our times.

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