Arrest The Book Essay, Research Paper
Without free speech no search for truth is possible… no discovery of truth is useful… Better athousandfold abuse of free speech than denial of free speech. The abuse dies in a day, but thedenial slays the life of the people, and entombs the hope of the race. (Colley 15) As long ashumans have sought to communicate, others have sought to prevent them. Almost every ideaever thought has proved objectionable to one person or another, and almost everyone hassometimes felt the world would be a better place if only so and so would go away. Perhaps because of their prevalence, books, especially public and school library books, areamong the most visible targets of censorship. From Galileo, forced to recant his beliefs and watchhis works burned, to the Council appointed by King James to develop the definitive Englishversion of the Bible, which left so many books out, and into the present day, censorship has triedto suppress ideas, rather than refute them with better ideas. (Vogelback 91) Even to the presentday, we so often condemn books that were written to fight the very things we claim to be fighting.Mark Twain s (Samuel Clemens ) Huckleberry Finn is so often cited as being racist, when it waswritten against slavery and racism. There is always more than one side to any story. This is more true with censorship of thewritten word than with most topics. Therefore it is important to evaluate both extremes ofcensorship: censorship that hinders and censorship that protects. Censorship has many effects onsociety s way of thinking, both good and bad according to different people. Suzanne FisherStaples states that there is a concern for children and other people not being able to fully developtheir intellect due to restriction of reading material. Her article explores the fine but definite linebetween protection and hindrance. Today, many children s books today have been banned inschool libraries across the country, not for being detrimental to children s upbringing, but, mostfrequently, they are challenged because they contain curse words or violence, sex, homosexuality,the occult, or rebellious children. Staples states in her article, I was allowed to read what I liked[in my childhood]. It helped me to learn who I was and where I fit into the world. Banningbooks has become commonplace in the 1990s. From 1991 to 1994 the number of formaldemands for the removal of books from public and school libraries has increased by more than 50percent. (Staples 1) Among the most-banned books are some of the best-loved modern classics. In addition to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a list of the ten most-challenged titles for1994 compiled by the American Library Association includes Forever by Judy Blume, theNewbery Award-winning Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson, The Chocolate War byRobert Cormier, Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark, More Scary Stories, and Scary Stories 3 byAlvin Schwartz, and The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (Staples 1). While Staples arguesthat censorship has a hindering affect on the nations youth, David Miller points more positivesides of censorship. He elucidates on the issue of protecting, not just youth, but people of all agesfrom vulgarity, obscenity, and lack of refinement (Miller 103) He believes that the controversialtopics, language, or content of some books is a negative influence. However, between these twoextremes is what seems to be the most reasonable interpretation: Censorship is licit if it isexercised in moderation. (Miller 110) Robin Toner incorporates the two ideals of both Staplesand Miller and delves into how censorship must be neither excessively applied nor insufficientlyadministered. Most of the time, it is people s fear of reality that keep them from allowingthemselves to think and read. All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called HuckleberryFinn….It s the best book we ve had. (Vogelback 291) The tale of Huckleberry Finn, firstpublished in the United States 100 years ago this month, is so familiar it almost transcends itsroots. (Vogelback 292) Despite the place of honor Huckleberry Finn holds in Americanliterature today, controversy about the book has been brisk since its birth. In the19th and early20th century it was denounced as too vulgar for children. In our own time Twain s use of blackdialect, and the repeated references to blacks as niggers by the major characters, has led tocharges that Huckleberry Finn is a racist tract that stereotypes black people. Some havesuggested it be dropped from required readings for high school students. (Alford 132-133) The book was an immediate hit with the general public. By May of 1885 51,000 copieshad been sold and the publisher was quickly issuing more, but the reviews were less thenapproving. (Fischer 22) What critic Gore Vidal calls bookchat land was not amused by Huckleberry Finn. (Fischer 23) The Boston Transcript called the book flat as well as coarse. (Fischer 23) A New York publication decided on the sarcastic approach. A delicate piece ofnarration, wrote the prickly reviewer, by Huck Finn, describing his venerable and dilapidated pap afflicted with delirium tremens . . . is especially suited to amuse children on long rainyafternoons . . . (Fischer 24) It was the public library in Concord, Mass. that took the first move. In March 1885 theless-then-month-old book was banned as too crude and removed from public shelves. Committeemember and Little Women author Louisa May Alcott announced If Mr. Clemens cannot think ofsomething better to tell our pure-minded lads and lasses he had better stop writing for them. (Colley 111) Twain wrote to his publisher that the library s ban will sell 25,000 copies. (Arac 265) He later confided to his diary, Those idiots in Concord are not a court of last resort, and I am notdisturbed by their moral gymnastics. (Arac 265) By the end of World War II the place of Huckleberry Finn in America s place in literature was unshakable, but the controversy thatsurrounded it remained strong. In 1948 when critic, Leslie Fiedler, wrote an essay that claimed tofind a homo-erotic subtext in the friendship between Huck and Jim it sparked a firestorm ofprotest, but it did little to damage the reputation of Twain or his creation. (Toner A10) Whenpoet/critic, T.S. Eliot, declared in 1950 that Huck Finn was worthy to be placed beside Ulysses,Faust, Don Quixote, Don Juan, Hamlet and the other great discoveries that man has made abouthimself, no one was about to challenge him. (Fischer 24) But there were changes taking place outside the literary stronghold. In the mid-to-late1950s, American blacks were accelerating their long struggle for civil rights. Many felt that themost subtle form of racism was that which perpetuated stereotypes. Amos and Andy andblackface comics were pointed to as symbols of a past that degraded black people. Rememberingthe pain they and their children had suffered from insensitive classmates and uncaring teachers,blacks focused on what they saw as the stereotypes of their race in Huckleberry Finn. (Alford 4) Because of its use of the word nigger , the New York City Board of Education announced in1957 that it was taking Huckleberry Finn off the list of approved textbooks for elementary andjunior high schools. That same year the National Association for the Advancement of ColoredPeople called the book racially offensive. Since then many school districts across the countryhave responded to the racial problems presented by the book by either restricting its use orconfining it to only certain levels of the high school curriculum. (Alford 4) Another dispute over Huckleberry Finn occurred in State College in 1982. In the9th-grade class a young black student was told to read the part of Jim from Huckleberry Finn. Feeling insulted, he told his mother of the slight when he returned home. As a result she launcheda campaign to get the book removed from the 9th-grade curriculum. (Vogelback 264) Ayear-long study concluded that all books used in the district should be re-evaluated and thatHuckleberry Finn be taught at the 11th-grade level. The school district however, refused to go
along with the committees suggestion and Huckleberry Finn remains in the 9th grade. (Vogelback264-265) PennState professor of Black Studies John Stewart feels that a good part of black peoples problemsabout Huckleberry Finn comes from the way it is taught. Academics and scholars talk about Huckleberry Finn as if they don t care about the feelings of black people says Stewart. Idon t believe in banning books, but when people like author John Barth say they think Huckleberry Finn should be read from the time a baby is in diapers until he is ready for thegrave, I think that shows a lack of concern. Stewart feels that the teaching of Huckleberry Finn should be confined to the senior high school level. (Cpllins287) In Huckleberry Finn is Twain s ironic commentary on life in the pre-Civil War South. He shows the American conflict between myth and reality. It is also a boy s discovery that hisfriend Jim is a human being and not an animal as his society told him. I am aware that many blackpeople see the book as stereotyping, yet I have met other blacks who say it is terrific. (TonerA10) Twenty years later, when Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer wereremoved from the public library in Brooklyn, New York, their literary style was no longer indispute. (Fischer 22) By 1905, Twain was already considered a monumental literary force and hewas at the height of his international celebrity, but the boys actions raised problems. Libraryofficials explained that they provided bad examples to the youth of the day. (Fischer 23) Since the 1950s, Twain s depiction of race relations in the pre-Civil War South has causedmost objections to Huckleberry Finn. Because Twain used the word nigger repeatedly in thenovel, parents and teachers are concerned about the effect that reading it has on students. (Alford4) Race was not an issue for the library directors in Concord and Brooklyn, but it came tothe fore when the Civil Rights Movement brought increased attention to connections betweenracial epithets and racial violence. (Alford 4) For me, each sound of the word nigger rings outlike the sound of rifle fire as the bullet tears through the face of Dr. King, and like the shotgunblast tearing into the back of Medgar Evers, or the threats being yelled by racist adults as theyblock the paths of little black children on their way to school, , vice-president of the AfricanAmerican Parent Coalition in Piedmont Hills, California, that challenged the novel in 1995.(Alford 4) The most recent court case was this year when the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appealshanded down its decision in the case. The case, Monteiro vs. Tempe Union High School District,97-15511, was closed October 19 when the judges handed down. That ended a long battle tohave Huckleberry Finn and A Rose for Emily, a short story by William Faulkner, removed fromthe reading list at McClintock High School in Tempe, Arizona. (Darrikson 1) Kathy Monteiro began her campaign to have those readings removed from the curriculumthree years ago. Her primary goal was to get them to address racial tensions at the school, butshe believed those were exacerbated by requiring students to read Huckleberry Finn and A Rosefor Emily, two works that contain the word nigger. In early 1997 Monteiro was arrested for interfering with an educational institution when she refused to leave an assembly at the schoolabout the controversy to which she had been invited. The charges were finally dismissed a yearlater. (Darrikson 1) The central issue was never a book issue, she told a reporter from the Arizona Republic whenthe charges against her were dropped in March. The central issue here first and foremost wasrespect and dignity. That is what my motive has been from the very beginning. (Miller B3) After her legal case for removal of Huckleberry Finn and A Rose for Emily wasdismissed by a district court judge in January 1997, Monteiro brought it before the U.S. 9thCircuit Court of Appeals. In February 1998 her lawyer, Stephen Montoya, argued before thecourt that reading those literary works created, exacerbated and contributed to a hostile workenvironment at the school. The case was one of several new attempts to ban Huckleberry Finnusing civil rights arguments. (Darrikson 1) Although the court ruled against banning books based on their content, the court s opinionin the case is viewed by Monteiro and her lawyer as a victory because it also ruled that schoolscan be held liable if they do not address complaints of a racially hostile environment. This is thefirst time that a federal appeals court has ruled that schools can be held financially liable for aracially hostile environment in the same way employers are held liable for allowing a sexuallyhostile environment to persist in the workplace. Because of its broad ramifications, that part of thecourt s opinion may be brought before the Supreme Court for clarification. (Darrikson 1)Of course, those reactions are not to the racism of the pre-Civil War South that Twaincriticized in the novel, but to the racism that still permeates U.S. society. If we deradicated the problem of racism in our society, Huckleberry Finn would be the easiestbook in the world to teach, David Bradley, author of The Chaneysville Incident, has said.Because it has not been eradicated, the novel forces readers to confront racism both asTwain portrayed it and as his language is interpreted today. It argues that it s often the polite, honorable people in a morally bankrupt society, theAunt Sallys and Uncle Silases, who tolerate acts that are heinous, we re stillnot comfortable probing that. But if Huck Finn encourages questions and arguments aboutthese issues, that s one of the most valuable things that can happen in a classroom. Sheadds that Twain s novel is often the first and only book on the school syllabus that evenaddresses racism. (Arac 163) Reactions to Huckleberry Finn today are a sign of both theprogress made during the last 112 years since the book was published and the continuing racialdivisions within U.S. society. Twain s book was published during what is now recognized as thehistoric low point in post-Civil War race relations within the United States. (Collins B3) Withinthat context, it is not surprising that contemporary reviews of the novel did not focus on racialissues. What is surprising is that there was not more understanding and criticism of its sharplyanti-racist position and of the depth of the interracial friendship between Huck and Jim that itportrayed. The often heated debate today about racism in the novel is an indication of increasedawareness and concern about the issue in American society. What divides most thoughtful criticsand supporters of the novel is really a question of strategy: can you end racism in the UnitedStates by shielding students from language and issues that make themuncomfortable, or does it need to be directly confronted, with Mark Twain s HuckleberryFinn being one of the books that is most widely available for that purpose? Mark Twain answered that question when he attacked the lie of silent assertion that kept people from jumping to the abolitionist cause before the Civil War: Argue and plead and pray as they might, [abolitionists] could not break theuniversal stillness that reigned, from pulpit and press all the way down to thebottom of society — the clammy stillness created and maintained by the lie of silentassertion (Collins 170), the silent assertion that there wasn t anything going on in whichhumane and intelligent people were interested. Twain concluded that the silent colossal National Lie that is the support and confederateof all the tyrannies and shams and inequalities and unfairness that afflict the peoples –that is theone to throw bricks and sermons at. (Colley 234) Over and over again each year, incommunities across the United States, Mark Twain s Huckleberry Finn confronts that silence. In1885 the novel challenged a deeply entrenched elitist literary establishment that found the book more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people. (Vogelback 270) Today itchallenges the lie of silent assertion that racism is no longer a pressing concern in the UnitedStates. Removing the book from school curriculums and libraries can only strengthen that lie,inhibiting discussion of existing racial divisions instead of addressing them in a positive manner. Instead of banning Huckleberry Finn, we should count it among the weapons that can be used toconfront racism in the United States.