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"Railton, Stephen F (sfr)" <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Sat, 27 Mar 2021 17:48:55 +0000
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I hope you'll let me respond to two different threads.
First, the electronic archive Mark Twain In His Times has quite a few different texts from his various lectures and tours at

But the question about racism is obviously more important, for our culture and for Twain's future place within it.
As perhaps some of you already know, I've been arguing for a long time that Huck Finn -- the novel; the boy obviously has the racist beliefs of his culture, which is the basis on which Twain builds his ironic narrative -- that HF is AND isn't racist: that while many if not all of the scenes on the raft challenge America's racist preconceptions, at a number of points -- and especially during the Evasion -- the novel perpetuates the racist stereotypes that grew from slavery and that still haunt our society.  I realize I've had very little success getting most of the Twain community to agree.  But here I want to underline two things, that may help carry our conversation forward:

The U.S. was "racist" when Sam Clemens was a kid, and racist in 1885 when HF was published, and it is still deeply if now more insiduously  and unconsciously racist in 2021.  I recognize that as someone who grew up in the U.S. I still have my share of unconscious racism -- how could I not, having for example grown up in a city (Elgin Ill in the 50s) with a 10% population of blacks whom I never saw, while watching hours of TV and movies where blacks were depicted in the stereotypical ways that make white America comfortable.  But of course the U.S. is also struggling to outgrow racism, to be the truly democratic society our principles declare it to be.  And to me, that's the wonderful thing about Huck Finn -- that it racist and anti-racist, like our culture then and now, and so can hold a really powerful mirror up to the best and worst about ourselves.  Could Mark Twain have been so beloved as a figure in our culture if he didn't know how to give white audiences what they wanted?  That his work often transcends their appetites is why we spend so much of our lives reading and thinking about him.

Second: for that reason I want HF to remain part of the curriculum, though teachers should not teach it unless they are prepared to consciously confront the extreme discomfort the novel can cause, and prepared with their students to look closely at both the novel's best moments and the ways in which the novel betrays Jim, its anti-racist agenda, and its own greatness.  But I think that as long as such a large part of the Twain community keeps insisting that the problem with HF is in the minds of the readers who don't know how to read it, rather than also in its text and in our culture, the days of Twain's place in the curriculum are numbered.  To me, HF is about the best occasion we have to have the discussion about slavery and racism that we always keep deferring as a culture, and the high school or college classroom is the best place to have that discussion.  But as a discussion, the conversation has to acknowledge what is admonitory as well as what is exemplary, where HF should appall us as well as where it should delight and inspire us.  I'm sorry I wrote so much, but as you can tell, all this means a lot to me.  I think it means a lot to our culture too.  Thanks for listening, Steve Railton  (Emeritus Prof of English, Univ of Virginia)

MT as Lecturer -<>
"The Trouble Begins at 8:00" MT began his career as a platform entertainer out West, after he'd achieved notoriety as a newspaper writer. When he began speaking in the East, he worried about how to meet the expectations of audiences who loved to listen to oratory, but whose tastes had been formed by lyceum lectures.

From: Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]> on behalf of John R. Pascal <[log in to unmask]>
Sent: Saturday, March 27, 2021 1:07 PM
To: [log in to unmask] <[log in to unmask]>
Subject: Fwd: Regarding "the 'N' word" in Huck Finn

Last line, I meant to say, “I certainly don’t KNOW any of the political and administrative . . .”
It’s Saturday, time to be outside!!
> Begin forwarded message:
> From: "John R. Pascal" <[log in to unmask]>
> Subject: Re: Regarding "the 'N' word" in Huck Finn
> Date: March 27, 2021 at 1:02:48 PM EDT
> To: Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
> Hi Alan,
> I neither could nor would comment on any students outside of my own, except to say that it is a shame from what you say that apparently they do not at least try to exercise an open mind to just listen to as many facts as possible and then make a better informed educated decision.  Teaching difficult subjects is never easy, but the students do want the truth to be presented, as you indeed know.
> As you are aware, every teacher and every classroom demographic is different, so I can’t comment any more on this portion.
> I only know what works for me.
> In addition to the information I already gave, I also reference Dr. Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s works, Lighting Out for the Territory Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture, and Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African American Voices.
> I do not know what you mean by “Seton Hall has a budget to do that.” Critical Companion and Dr. Fishkin’s books are my personal property, along with Dr. Fishkin’s works.  They are on my classroom desk and my students do thumb through them.  Any research I do, like any teacher, is on my own time without renumeration; I wouldn’t ask anyway.  It’s part of my expected professional development.
> Also, we do use the Signet Classic paperback edition of Huckleberry Finn and it contains three other major American works.  But I loan my students my copies of the definitive edition of HF published from the Mark Twain Project that I myself have paid for without asking for school reimbursement.  The students can highlight in them and the definitive edition’s explanatory notes, maps, and illustrations are appreciated by them.
> I am sorry I don’t have any ready suggestions to launch a funding effort or find additional grants for your Twain Live series.  Perhaps the alumni of Trenton HS could be solicited for supporting the series for the sake of the current students, but I certainly don’t any of the political and administrative ramifications in this regard.
> John
>> On Mar 27, 2021, at 11:22 AM, Alan Kitty <[log in to unmask] <mailto:[log in to unmask]>> wrote:
>> John- When asked, Trenton HS students will agree with an assessment that HF, and by extension MT, is racist. I know of no deep dive into related material that could change that perception. I have even offered to place Twain himself In the line of fire. But as a practical matter Seton Hall has a budget to do that. Urban public schools do not.
>> We lack staff to launch a funding effort or find additional grants for our Twain Live series.
>> Suggestions?
>> Alan Kitty
>> Mark Twain Education Society
>> Don’t ask ‘for whom the bell tolls’. It’s your email and no one else cares.
>> Sent from my iPhone
>>> On Mar 27, 2021, at 11:04 AM, John R. Pascal <[log in to unmask] <mailto:[log in to unmask]>> wrote:
>>> Hi Mr. Shannon,
>>> I can only offer my own classroom experience in teaching Huckleberry Finn in the last fourteen years to high school juniors.
>>> I take effective time with them to review Dr. R. Kent Rasmussen’s entries in his Critical Companion as to the N-word, slavery, African Americans, pertinent portions of Twain’s life showing his changing views on slavery, the history of the work’s reception by the public (they laugh at Concord Public Library’s reaction and cheer at Twain’s reaction to it), and his helping to pay for the Yale University Law School education of Walter T. McGuinn.  In short, showing that Twain and his opus are not racist.
>>> If you haven’t already done so, may I suggest you read his entries that are excellently comprehensive and enlightening.
>>> I also offer that some musical rap artists use the word in their works, and apparently there is little outcry in contrast to that of Huckleberry Finn. I suggest that this is the price of free speech in our society.
>>> Additionally, I put forth that the oral reading and discussion of the word is strictly in an academic context.  Nothing more.
>>> I ask that they only think and reflect on all I have shown them, particularly when they know that all this information is certainly not generally known in most, if any, high schools in our country.  This is giving them the very much needed “big picture."
>>> Finally I state that if anyone has any problem with the word for any or even no reason, just to tell me privately and without question it won’t be used.
>>> As a result, I am fortunate to say that they are fine with reading and discussing Huckleberry Finn as it is, and when a student just says “N-word” when reading the dialogue, I do not correct him at all.  In a classroom in which respect is paramount for each student, no one gives a taunting remark.
>>> If any teacher can’t teach the work because of this word, then I would urge them to certainly use the NewSouth publication that changes the word to “slave."
>>> Lastly, they are shocked and appalled that Huckleberry Finn has been banned in some school districts.  In fact, I warn them that they at best attend local public Board of Education Meetings.  It is likely that their own younger siblings and one day their own children will come home and be told they can’t read a book in school because a small number of parents complained.  The Board easily avoids a lawsuit by simply changing the book selection, and then the majority of parents find out after it is too late.
>>> You could go to the American Library Association’s website of banned books.  The titles and reasons might shock you as well.
>>> Respectfully,
>>> John Pascal
>>> Seton Hall Preparatory School
>>> West Orange, NJ
>>>> On Mar 27, 2021, at 8:39 AM, Clay Shannon <[log in to unmask] <mailto:[log in to unmask]>> wrote:
>>>> I have vacillated a little over the years regarding what I thought about "the 'N' word" being used in Twain's magnum opus, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
>>>> For the most part, I have been for remaining true to the original (rather than replacing it with the word "slave" or something else), and educating people about why the word was used by Twain in that book, and how common it was then, etc.
>>>> In the same way, I don't like it when historical movies/tv shows have people using "the 'F' word" and other anachronisms when that word was rarely, if ever, used in the time and place being depicted. The "excuse" the apologists of such usage give is that if they were to be completely precise as to how people spoke back then, their vitriol would not be conveyed, but rather sound like something grandma might say when she dropped her thimble. I think for the most part it's preferable to either give the audience the benefit of the doubt or educate them, so that they understand the import and impact of what is being said, even if it sounds quaint or even comical to some today.
>>>> However, something occurred yesterday that gave me pause regarding "the 'N' word" in Huck Finn:
>>>> I have a very good friend who is "black." We have been discussing literature (via the mail) a litt/e lately. He recently read "Huck Finn" (he liked it a lot). After a little back and forth about it, this is what he had to say in yesterday's letter:
>>>> ///As for Mark Twain, I agree. He DOES NOT promote slavery. I think people have more of an issue with the "n" word. I'm all for historical accuracy in literature and in fiction but the issue is, should it be read in schools?
>>>> If I was the only black kid in a white classroom could you imagine the embarrassment I'd feel if we read the "n" word over and over and over again? Or worse, what they would call me at recess?///
>>>> That was an epiphany for me. Perhaps this is a case where "the perfect is the enemy of the good," as there are probably two possibilities for Huck Finn being available in the classroom henceforth:
>>>> 1) The "N" word is replaced with something else, maybe "slave" or "negro" (perhaps with an explanation in the foreword and/or verbally by the teacher at the start of the class reading it as to why "the 'N' word" was used in the original, and why it is being replaced)2) It's not available at all
>>>> Perhaps replacing the problematic word may, after all, be more in the spirit of what Twain wrote. In this instance, although it would not be a completely precise version of the book (if "the 'N' word" were expurgated), it would be the kind thing to do, considering how it might affect some of the hearers/readers.
>>>> - B. Clay Shannon