As we discussed classic books the other night, a friend and I found ourselves in the middle of one of those exciting new-friendship- discovery-moments reserved for those just getting to know each other.
We realized we shared a secret goal. Before we leave Missouri, both of us want to visit Hannibal, the childhood home of Mark Twain. So amidst the excitement of embarking on my own Tom Sawyer-inspired road trip, this Huffington Post column caught my eye.
In it, Steve Courtney, a publicist at The Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Connecticut talks about balancing sensitivity in a job that requires him to accurately portray an author, the style he chose to write in and a time period whose definition of morality differed from our own.
Courtney specifically refers to the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Though an acknowledged contribution to literature, the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn portrays life in a world where slavery exists and prospers. Part of Twain’s portrayal is the frequent use of the n-word. Courtney’s column was inspired by citizens in his community who felt that the language used in the book is offensive and the book should taken out of the classroom.
I read the novel back in high school in New Jersey. We read the book aloud in class as it was written. The n-word was said aloud in class only when reading from the text, and the serious matter in which our teacher took the novel made it clear that anyone who planned on being anything but sensitive would not be tolerated in our classroom.
A friend said that in her Texas high school, students were encouraged to replace the n-word with any word of their choice like “paper” or “pencil.” The word was obviously read, but never said out loud. Another friend said that in her Chicago high school the word was only said if the reader was comfortable reading it out loud in a classroom environment.
Our teachers seemed to agree that, despite controversial or offensive aspects, the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and other banned books like it bring positive contributions to the classroom. And the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not the only book whose credibility has been questioned since the year of its publication. J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, though critically acclaimed, was consistently included on banned books lists. Upon the author’s death last week, the novel was hailed as a classic. Other banned books include:
- The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
- James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
- The Lorax by Dr. Seuss
- The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown
Every year the American Library Association celebrates Banned Books Week, to “draw attention to the danger that exists when restraints are imposed on the availability of information in a free society.”
In the end, it is up to the reader to decide if the lessons that can be absorbed from a book like the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are more important than any obscenities it contains. Courtney said “sensitivity” was key to understanding the bigger picture. In my experience, students are more than capable of pushing past any offensive aspects of a book to absorb a greater good. And along with my copy of Tom Sawyer and my uncontained excitement of experiencing a place that inspired Mark Twain, I plan on bringing a quiet sensitivity with me on my adventure to Hannibal, Missouri.
To me, its a matter of keeping perspective. What do you think?