A Victory for Niceness -- and Why Not?

JAMES J. KIRKPATRICK

April 03, 1992|By JAMES J. KILPATRICK

A school superintendent in North Carolina last month threw Huck Finn out of his classrooms. I think the gentleman acted properly; and because I have spent my life fighting censorship by the state, I want to brood aloud about the affair.

These are the circumstances as reported by the Associated Press. In February, Harold Fleming, interim superintendent of schools in Kinston, North Carolina, directed a middle-school teacher of English not to assign ''The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn'' as required reading. A few weeks later another teacher called the Kinston Free Press to complain of censorship. The AP picked up the story.

Mr. Fleming, who is black, said the novel contains language that is offensive to blacks. The school principal, Earl Heath, also black, said there are words that ''we may not want to deal with'' at the seventh- and eighth-grade level. Mr. Fleming said the teacher is not adequately prepared to teach the classic. He emphasized that the novel will remain available to students in the school library.

By coincidence, the incident in North Carolina came along with publication of ''Satire or Evasion?'' a collection of 15 essays by black scholars on Twain's acclaimed novel. The book comes from the Duke University Press.

Thus informed, I can report to you that ''Huckleberry Finn'' has traveled a rough road since the first American edition appeared in 1885. The novel immediately was banned in Boston, where the library committee found it ''more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people.'' Since then scores of schools have struck it from required reading lists. Philadelphia has sanctioned a version stripped of all derogatory words.

Now, ''Huckleberry Finn'' may be one of those classics, like ''War and Peace,'' that everyone talks about but nobody reads. I first read it, and loved it, 60 years ago. I was then a white boy growing up in a segregated city. I must have read it again about 1935 in high school. I read it -- browsed through it, rather -- again last night.

John Wallace, a black educator who has made a career of denouncing the novel, condemns it out of hand. It is ''the most grotesque example of racist trash ever written.'' Critic Lionel Trilling called it ''one of the world's great books.'' T.S. Eliot called it ''a masterpiece.''

''Huckleberry Finn'' is certainly not ''racist trash.'' It is grotesque to call it so. What it is, among other things, is one of the most difficult novels in American fiction. It is a deeply moral story, but the moral is obscured by Twain's own ambivalence. The ending is facile. Like much satire, the satire in the book is easily missed.

As a masterpiece, it is a masterpiece of irony. One of the essayists comments upon Twain's point -- that a close friendship between black and white could develop ''only on a socially isolated raft in the middle of the nation's biggest and longest river.'' This is a fun book for white boys to read. It is a formidably difficult work for any teacher to teach. For black children, I have come to realize, it is a brutal slap in the face.

Superintendent Fleming was right. The Kinston school is 85 percent black. Only the most skilled instructor might explain to these 13-year-olds the nuances of Twain's novel in the context of its day. The word ''nigger,'' by one count, appears more than 200 times. It is a hate word. For blacks, who know many hate words, it is the worst of all. One of the essayists remarks that few whites comprehend ''the enormous emotional freight'' the epithet carries.

It may be heresy, but I voice it anyhow: It is quite possible to lead a life that is intellectually fulfilled without ever having read ''The 11 Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.'' Every high school graduate should at least have met Mark Twain at some point along the way. Every high school library should have his novels freely available, and every English major in college will want to read ''Huck'' as a matter of course.

That's not the issue in Kinston. There it is a matter of compelling black and white children to read a book in which a principal character repeatedly, casually, is referred to as a ''nigger.'' Who needs this?

Nat Hentoff, a liberal critic who writes for The Village Voice, says caustically that to remove ''Huckleberry Finn'' from a required reading list is ''a victory for niceness.'' OK. I see no reason why niceness should not score a victory now and then.

James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.

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