Mark Twain, the N Word and Compassion

Mark_twain_quotes by Fred Zackel

Didja hear?

This February, NewSouth Books will publish “Tom Sawyer” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” in a single volume, removing the “n” word and the word “injun” from the text. The word “slave” will replace the “n” word.

Mark Twain must be twirling in his grave.

Last year 2010 marked the 175th anniversary of his birth, the 100th anniversary of his death and the 125th anniversary of the American publication of “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

This book “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is, as Lionel Trilling said, was “America's most eloquent argument against racism.”

If you never read it, don't wait for some instructor to force you.

As Twain himself said, “I never let schooling interfere with my education.”

But let’s look at what else we can “hear” from Twain, the First Great, Internationally Famous California Writer.

Oh yeah. Mark Twain was a California writer.

Listen to the Voice in this 1865 yarn, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” his earliest success.

“I'll risk forty dollars that he can outjump any frog in Calaveras county.”

And later …

“I don't see no p'ints about that frog that's any better'n any other frog.”

The Jumping Frog was the first California International Best-seller. It made Twain famous. The story was spawned in the Gold Country. It traveled the world.

The story is about a con man getting conned. And what could be more All American?

Mark Twain said about the American art …

“To string incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purposeless way, and seem innocently unaware that they are absurdities, is the basis of the American art, if my position is correct.”

Yes, he was the first great California writer. Hard to believe, yes.

In San Francisco Twain met Bret Harte, who first printed the Jumping Frog. The two men started their feud. Harte was not a racist, but he was not opposed to using racism to boost his career. Twain was a casual racist at first. He was a Southerner, after all, had even spent time with the Confederate militia, but the treatment of minorities, especially the Chinese, in San Francisco opened his eyes and helped change his heart.

In San Francisco Mark Twain had his first earthquake, almost committed suicide, and found his voice. Oh, and he surfed naked, too. Really. In Hawaii, actually.

In San Francisco and Hawaii he was a young man. A redhead, by the way.

Twain spent the first two decades of his writing life NOT writing a full length manuscript.

Starting at 18, he wrote sketches and skits. Gradually he moved into tall tale fantasies and travel letters.

Out west (both Virginia City and San Francisco,) he was a reporter with feature stories, political news, and sketches. He wrote the tall tale and the burlesque.

His first full length book was “The Innocents Abroad,” but it was merely a collection of travel letters.

His 1870 “Roughin’ It” was his first real book, and it was his recollections from Nevada, California, and even Hawaii. It too was short pieces.

Oh, btw, I find my own favorite Twain pieces, too, in “Roughin’ It.” When you get to Twain's Coyote essay, go ahead and read it aloud. Get a western drawl in the side of your mouth and read Coyote aloud. The slower the better. I swear we grab a time machine and go back almost 150 years when we say it aloud.

Most of his life’s work as a writer was episodic, anecdotal, and often not in context.

(I blame the lack of MFA programs in Creative Writing after the Civil War for that.)

Clemens only had nine years of true schooling, one of his deepest regrets.

In 1863 he took on a pseudonym to save himself from a gunslinger and a duel.

“The Celebrated Jumping Frog” was his earliest masterpiece. After its first publication, he revised it many times; five times by my count alone.

Twain was a thoughtful, painstaking craftsman. In all his work, he wrote from scratch, without an outline or a plan, as if writing a personal essay and then building towards an ending still unknown to him.

In all those revisions, he was searching for the scheme to the story, devising the pattern to each work while he endlessly revised it, searching for what made the work sing.

He once claimed the secret to discovering the story was discovering the proper “point of view.”

Mention “Point of View” and we can hear …

Huck Finn talking just to us.

Huck Finn, by the way, a fifteen year old, semi-literate victim of child abuse from his Pappy, says the most amazing thing about his American heritage in Chapter 31 of that wonderful book NewSouth is going to butcher, after he discovers “there’s a two hundred dollars reward on” his companion Jim.

If he turns Jim in for the reward, that action will “make him a slave again all his life …”

Now let me apologize in advance for Huck’s language, the only language he ever knew, the language of racism:

“And then think of me! It would get all around, that Huck Finn helped a nigger to get his freedom; and if I was to ever see anybody from that town again, I'd be ready to get down and lick his boots for shame. That's just the way: a person does a low-down thing, and then he don't want to take no consequences of it. Thinks as long as he can hide it, it ain't no disgrace. That was my fix exactly. The more I studied about this, the more my conscience went to grinding me, and the more wicked and low-down and ornery I got to feeling. And at last, when it hit me all of a sudden that here was the plain hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in heaven …”

In case you never heard this, the N-word is used 283 times in the novel. Its usage is casual, constant. It was part of the koine of America. Yes, it is racist and vile and reprehensible … but it was common currency back then.

So the only Universe Huck Finn knows demands he turn Jim in. Even his religious upbringing says he must turn Jim in. He will get handsomely rewarded, too, for this betrayal.

“And I about made up my mind to pray; and see if I couldn't try to quit being the kind of a boy I was, and be better. So I kneeled down. But the words wouldn't come. Why wouldn't they? It warn't no use to try and hide it from Him. Nor from me, neither. I knowed very well why they wouldn't come. It was because my heart warn't right; it was because I warn't square; it was because I was playing double. I was letting on to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all. I was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing and the clean thing, and go and write to that nigger's owner and tell where he was …”

Huck writes the letter: “Miss Watson your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send. HUCK FINN.”

And in the first great act of empathy in American literature, this abused child says:

“I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: “All right, then, I'll go to hell”- and tore it up.”

My word, what an astonishing moral development. He rejects racism!!

“All right, then, I'll go to hell”

Yes, Mark Twain is the author whom William Dean Howells once called “the Lincoln of our literature.”

As Twain himself once said, “I don't believe in Hell but I'm afraid of it.”

Let’s go back up that page in Chapter 31.

“We catched fish and talked, and we took a swim now and then to keep off sleepiness. It was kind of solemn, drifting down the big, still river, laying on our backs looking up at the stars, and we didn't ever feel like talking loud, and it warn't often that we laughed—only a little kind of a low chuckle. We had mighty good weather as a general thing, and nothing ever happened to us at all—that night, nor the next, nor the next.”

As I said, my own personal belief is that Huck’s two sentences that come next are the most powerful, most valuable sentences in the American canon.

“I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself, “All right, then, I'll GO to hell.”

Those two sentences are why Ernest Hemingway said all modern American literature starts with Mark Twain.

Twain wrote once, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is really a large matter — it's the difference between a lightning bug and the lightning.”

But if you do not know the context in which Huck Finn said those two sentences, then you will never get a grip on race relations in America.

Twain wrote the first half of the novel, got stuck, and set it aside for almost ten years.

Think about that ten year gap. How much of your OLD SELF must you crawl out of and throw away in order to climb into your NEW SELF?

A fifteen-year-old throwaway, a victim of child abuse, says, “All right, then, I'll GO to hell.”

Huck Finn ends his story by saying he’s going west.

Horace Greeley said, Go West, Young Man, and grow up with your country.

Huck Finn becomes one of the Best Americans ever, in my book.

As you read Twain, pay attention to his art.

His narrator, Twain insisted, is an actor’s art rather than a writer’s art. Please notice the stage directions, for lack of a better phrase, in Twain’s writings. Written speech counterfeits impromptu oral speech.

“To string incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purposeless way, and seem innocently unaware that they are absurdities, is the basis of the American art, if my position is correct.”

Huck Finn is still one of the most banned books in America. John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” is another. Look for others while you are at it.

Read a Banned Book Today. With all the terrible words.

It'll make you a better person for it.