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Never the Twain in modern America


T S ELIOT judged it to be a ‘masterpiece’. Hemingway concluded: ‘It’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.’

They were referring, of course, to Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Sadly, this anti-slavery classic of American literature is now one of the most-banned books on school and college campuses across the United States.

A recent newsletter from Michigan’s conservative Hillsdale College and addressed to fellow Americans reminds us how tightly by the throat the dogma of political correctness now holds the USA. True, the message comes with a sales pitch, but it is one that is unapologetically aimed at restoring some of the balance in the longstanding row over whether Twain’s anti-racist novel should be on an index of forbidden books in state institutions of education. 

In backing Mark Twain, Hillsdale is attempting to live in accordance with the liberal identity of its founders. The college was set up by a group of anti-slavery Baptists in 1844, though these days it does not have any religious affiliation. Amongst notable campus speakers was, on two occasions, the black ex-slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass. Edward Everett, who spoke at Gettysburg alongside Abraham Lincoln, was another.

When the Civil War broke out, Hillsdale provided more volunteers for the abolitionist Union Army than any other college in the state of Michigan. Sixty of them made the ultimate sacrifice. Nor are Hillsdale’s anti-racist credentials confined to the Civil War period. It was one of the first US colleges to ban discrimination on the grounds of religion, race or sex. Memorably, in 1956, the college pulled out of an important American football match in Florida because of discrimination against black players.

How ironic it is, then, that in 2007 Hillsdale had to withdraw from state funding to preserve its commitment to the liberal values set out in its charter. Public funding of education in the US these days is tied to strict compliance with what the government declares is acceptable and unacceptable. In academic terms this boils down to a politically correct iron fist ensuring that the West’s Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian identity is at best diluted and at worst placed in the dock for condemnation as racist, sexist and homophobic.

The story of Huckleberry Finn is the story of shared humanity between different races. Huckleberry and the escaped slave, Jim, are both friends and equals in the narrative. They display loyalty to each other and exhibit fundamental virtues that expose the hypocrisy of the society in which they live. The moral degradation of a society that permits, even cherishes, slavery is on display.

It is often overlooked that Huckleberry Finn is a historical novel looking back several decades to the pre-abolition South. At the time of its US publication in 1885 the Jim Crow laws were already undermining the Emancipation Proclamation. Mark Twain was, is and should continue to be a central part of the conscience of America.

Huckleberry Finn requires the reader to ponder, sometimes obliquely but often directly, the sin and absurdity of man’s inhumanity to man. In the years immediately following publication it was banned by some institutions on what I would consider ridiculous but at least legitimate grounds.

In 1885 the Concord Public Library cited the novel’s ‘systematic use of bad grammar and an employment of inelegant expression’, as reason for a ban. Twain’s use of Southern dialect and expression, clearly, did not win its approval. In 1902, the Brooklyn Public Library justified its ban in a statement that noted: ‘Huck not only itched but scratched,’ and added that he said ‘sweat’ when he should have referred to ‘perspiration’.

Daft? Yes, but understandable. Today’s widespread ban across most publicly funded schools and colleges in the US, on the grounds that the word ‘nigger’ is part of the book’s common vocabulary, is less innocently short-sighted. The word litters the novel because it was common parlance at the time and did not have the taboo status it has today. Closing down great anti-racist literature for being true to the past is both senseless and tragic.

In her autobiography, Victorian ‘nurse’, Crimean War heroine and Jamaican Mary Seacole uses the n-word with reference to black people. In the context of her time she uses rather more intentionally racist language with reference to the Turks whom she describes as ‘degenerate Arabs’ who, her opinion, are ‘worse than fleas’.

Has this brought a Mark Twain-style ban down on her head? Far from it. In the UK she has been voted Number 1 amongst Great Black Britons and a statue of her was unveiled opposite the Houses of Parliament in 2106. Her story is widely taught in UK schools. Rather than placing a ban on Huckleberry Finn it is time for the USA to follow suit. Place Mark Twain’s novel on a compulsory reading list for American youngsters to help in the battle against racism wherever it exists. Erect a statue of Jim and Huck opposite the Capitol building. Be brave, America!

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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