The Case Against Huck Finn

18 Feb

Short Story

“I want to write books that unlock the traffic jam in everybody’s head.”
— John Updike

The first real book I can remember reading was J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. I may have been 11 years old. I was banned from watching TV for some negligible crime involving the family dog and a bucket of paint. My allergies were acting up and I couldn’t go outside. My parents were fighting, and so I pulled a book at random from a box I’d found in the attic, and went into my room to disappear.

I remember thinking: “This book is really interesting. It’s about people even more messed up than my family.”

And also: “I wish they would stop yelling.”

About an hour later, during a lull in the domestic warfare that came to define my childhood, my mother entered my room, and found me under the covers reading the same moldy paperback she’d kept in her possession since she was around my age. She thumbed nostalgically through the first few pages, found this line, and read it out loud:

The rest were standing around in hatless, smoky little groups of twos and threes and fours inside the heated waiting room, talking in voices that, almost without exception, sounded collegiately dogmatic, as though each young man, in his strident, conversational turn, was clearing up, once and for all, some highly controversial issue, one that the outside, non-matriculating world had been bungling, provocatively or not, for centuries.

“What’s going on in that sentence?” she asked me. (My mother worked in education, and was skilled at these sorts of cold interrogations.)

“It’s a bunch of people, standing around a train station,” I answered.

“Mm.” She licked her finger, turned the page. “And the word matriculate. What does that mean?”

I shrugged my shoulders. I had no idea.

“It means go to college.” She closed the book. Sighed. “If you don’t know a word, you should look it up in the dictionary.” Then her face softened. “But a lot of the time, you can figure out what a word means, by the words that are around it.”

She gave me back the book. I noticed, for the first time I think, how veiny her hands were. And I realized that she had been crying. “So you learned a new word today. Good for you. You should learn two words every day, for the rest of your life.” Then she went out of the room, latching the door shut behind her.

I think I learned more about books, and writing, and the bizarreness of people, from that five-minute exchange with my mother, than from the many thousands of hours I spent in English classrooms and writing workshops from first grade through college.

*  *  *

“And Joyce was a poor sick fucker who probably died with his balls somewhere up around his navel. None of that for me, thanks.”
— Hunter S. Thompson

A few years ago–five? ten?–there was a major controversy involving the teaching of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as part of a standard high school English curriculum. The controversy stemmed from Huck’s relentless (and distinctly naive) use of the word “nigger” to describe his friend Jim, an escaped slave with whom Huck travels, on a stolen raft, down the Mississippi River.

I was never required to read Huck Finn in high school. I read the book on my own, some time after Franny & Zooey, and was sufficiently moved by the novel that when Halloween rolled around, I dressed up as Huck. That summer I wore the costume, or a modified version of it, as I explored the woods by my house with my dog. I don’t think I wanted to be Huck. I think I just wanted to be his friend. To find him in the woods somewhere.

Huck Finn is a lot of things–sad, funny, brilliant, maudlin, offensive, warm, clumsy, tedious. What it is not is an easy book to read. It’s a downright difficult book–and not just because of its folksy, racially-charged language. The book has no engine, no narrative thrust to keep the audience engaged. It is rather like the raft Huck and Jim travel on–meandering downstream, pausing to grill fish, occasionally finding adventure. Twain himself tired of the book midway through, put it in a drawer, and spent the next few years in bed. It is also a book with a famously bad and unwieldy ending.

Now, am I seriously arguing that children shouldn’t be required to read Huck Finn merely because it is a challenging work of literature? Yes, that is precisely what I am arguing–especially when there are shorter, equally rewarding books dealing with the same subject matter–many of them written by Twain himself. Tom Sawyer, Detective, anyone? Pudd’nhead Wilson?

*  *  *

“If a child does not like a book, throw it in the trash.” — Maurice Sendak

It makes no fucking sense to force children to read books they don’t want to read. It’s actually quite cruel–a lazy, yet elaborate form of torture. It is the equivalent of making a child work hard for a gift, over the course of many years, only to rob them of that gift just as they’ve developed the wherewithal to enjoy it.

Of course, that’s how school works. The point of school is to spread the gold from the sand, and identify and validate those students who are willing to fall in line with arbitrary rules and requirements, while penalizing those children who are unable or unwilling to march in lockstep, thus sentencing them to various low-paying vocational tracts, or worse, state universities.

Which is why students are assigned The Catcher in the Rye and not Franny and Zooey. Or Grapes of Wrath and not Travels With Charley. Or Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge and not Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Or Hemingway and Henry James instead of Kafka and Camus. God forbid children derive actual joy, and even original thought, from crawling under a tree and engaging deliriously with a work of fiction. We have them reading The Great Gatsby, for God’s sake. The Great Gatsby!

Which brings up a somewhat problematic question that’s been weighing on my mind for some time:

Why require children to read novels at all?

*  *  *

“A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.” –Edgar Allan Poe

Recently I was asked by a fellow writer to provide a quote supporting the idea that short stories–despite the apparent rapid-fire disappearance of journals like Ontario Review and Grand Street–are still a viable medium. Leaving aside that this question presupposes, a priori, that short stories are still valuable, I will attempt to answer the question in the context of the short story-vs-novel educational dilemma.

First, the short story market is not disappearing; if anything, it is expanding, at a vastly disproportionate rate to our culture’s interest in the form. I should know; I spend a grotesque amount of time submitting to, and being rejected from, practically all of them.

What is disappearing is the average person’s–and even the above-average person’s–tolerance for writing that does not engage the imagination on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, page-by-page basis. In such a stifling literary climate, it is a wonder that people read any books at all. What the novel has become is a niche interest, nothing more. An eccentric, though still well-regarded hobby. The novel’s value in shaping today’s culture, or in clarifying its vision of itself, is questionable at best.

The short story, by contrast, is unique in that it packs all the pleasures of long-form fiction into a savory, aromatic dish that can be ingested and enjoyed in about the same time as it takes for you to leash up your dog and go looking for adventure in the woods.

*  *  *

“The difference between journalism and literature is that journalism is unreadable and literature is unread.” — Oscar Wilde

My ideal high school English curriculum looks something like this:

9th Grade:

  • Roald Dahl, Skin and Other Stories (short stories–student picks any two)
  • Shirley Jackson, The Lottery (short story)
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez, A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings (short story)
  • J.D. Salinger, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, and Seymour: An Introduction (two novellas)
  • Mark Twain, The Prince and the Pauper (short novel)

10th Grade:

  • Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis (short story)
  • Stephen King, Different Seasons (four novellas–student picks one)
  • Alice Munro, Runaway (short story)
  • John Steinbeck, Cannery Row (short novel)

11th Grade:

  • Albert Camus, The Stranger (novella)
  • Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes From Underground (novella)
  • Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich (long short story)
  • Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (novel)

12th Grade:

  • Michael Chabon, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (novel)
  • Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections (novel)
  • Spike Lee, Do the Right Thing (film)
  • John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces (novel)
  • August Wilson, Fences (play)

There. Now isn’t that a colorful pile of literature? Doesn’t that look like a damn fine way to spend each school year? Aren’t these books more dynamic, more relevant, more beautifully written and joyfully consumed, than crap like Jane Eyre and Washington Square? Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if kids came home with these books, and their parents snagged the books for themselves.

It may be a random list. It may be an incomplete list. But it is an undeniably lively list, and if a kid can’t get excited about at least a few of these books, then what you have on your hands there is a dyed-in-the-wool simpleton, and no amount of lovingly rendered prose is going to prevent him or her from working in a gas station and watching The Big Bang Theory.

Note: This reading list is obviously lacking in non-Western voices, for the simple reason that I myself am somewhat of a simpleton, and have a limited interest in anything that doesn’t involve vodka, puppies, or football. My list is also notably light on female authors; I could have–and perhaps should have–included Toni Morrison, Amy Tan, or Ayn Rand…but high school students already read those authors, and I wanted to do away with the old, established curriculum and create something new here.

You may also notice that my list does not include such “classics” as The Odyssey, The Iliad, The Canterbury Tales, or Romeo and Juliet. You may even have a problem with this. To which I say: fuck the Classics. They are impossible to get through without massive quantities of wine and weed. The Classics are what college is for.

High school is for discovering the pleasures of reading serious fiction, and developing and refining those tastes, and experimenting with queer fashion choices, and sneaking cigarettes and blow jobs in bathrooms, and other worthy, wholesome pursuits.

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7 Responses to “The Case Against Huck Finn”

  1. msauret February 19, 2013 at 5:06 pm #

    Hey Ernesto,

    Thanks for taking the extensive time to answer my question about the value/relevance of short stories today.

    Reading your article provoked several thoughts and a couple follow-up questions.

    For one, do you believe that short stories actually ARE relevant today? You would think (from reading this post and following your blog) the answer was an obvious yes, but you mentioned that this statement (the relevance of short stories today) is “a priori” (yes, I had to look up the meaning).

    So my question, in other words, is: Are we jumping to unsupported conclusions when we say that the short story form is still relevant today?

    Or have short stories gone in the way of classics, therefore mostly irrelevant to young readers who need to be energized and excited about reading itself, and therefore are best left for a college or more intellectually mature audience?

    Obviously, you’ve already answered my question by the statement: “First, the short story market is not disappearing; if anything, it is expanding, at a vastly disproportionate rate to our culture’s interest in the form.”

    Isn’t that a contradiction in terms? For a market to expand, there must be an equally proportionate growth in consumption as there is in production. For a market to grow, supply must be met by demand. You could have a million bananas, but if you have enough buyers for ten thousand, that’s a market about to collapse on itself.

    Which leads me to my first question… Did I actually assume too much to imply that short stories ARE relevant today? Afterall, many modern authors have admitted that their short story collections don’t sell nearly as well as their novels. Why?

    I’ve seen that problem myself with “Amidst Traffic.” Though the collection has been met with favorable reviews and praise, the sales are so meager that it’s been difficult to call it a “marketable product.” The demand for short stories has decreased over the years.

    But why? Our American culture is one that’s moving toward a shorter attention span and desiring shorter reading materials for public consumption.

    The most popular blog posts are the ones that are short and to the point. Twitter and Instagram have become king in the social media world.

    But then why is there no oxygen for short stories to survive financially? Why is the short story market dying?

    I’m beginning to wonder whether short stories really ARE relevant from a public’s perspective. Except, I’m willing to argue that short stories ARE relevant from a writer/supporter’s perspective.

    My argument is this: Short stories (the good ones), provoke the reader to think critically about the material because everything is packed in such a way that every word must have added meaning. It is BECAUSE our culture is so intellectually lazy, that more short stories are what we need!

    Thoughts?

  2. Sean February 20, 2013 at 9:46 pm #

    The very very famous Alvin Toffler on “the covert curriculum”, i.e. the true purpose of our education system;
    http://lambat-liwanag.8m.net/07-overt-curriculum.htm
    Built on the factory model, mass education taught basic reading, writing and arithmetic, a bit of history and other subjects. This was the “overt curriculum.” But beneath it lay an invisible or “covert curriculum” that was far more basic. It consisted—and still does in most industrialized nations—of three courses: one in punctuality, one in obedience, and one in rote, repetitive work. Factory labor demanded workers who showed up on time, especially assembly-line hands. It demanded workers who would take orders from a management hierarchy without questioning. And it demanded men and women
    prepared to slave away at machines or in offices, performing brutally repetitious operations.

  3. msauret February 22, 2013 at 7:24 pm #

    Better solution: Homeschooling. Teach your child whatever literature you please. That’d be a lot of fun to do, actually.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Have short stories become irrelevant today? | - March 27, 2013

    […] I had originally emailed Martin Slag (whose email name is Ernesto Barbieri?) to get a quote from him on the subject because he writes an unbelievably addicting blog called “Letters of Rejection” which is all about the process and experience of getting short stories rejected by Literary journals. Instead of replying by email, he told me he would answer my question in the form of a blog article, which you can read here. […]

  2. Michel Sauret – Have Short Stories Become Irrelevant Today? | Orangeberry Book Tours - May 17, 2013

    […] I had originally emailed Martin Slag (whose email name is Ernesto Barbieri?) to get a quote from him on the subject because he writes an unbelievably addicting blog called “Letters of Rejection” which is all about the process and experience of getting short stories rejected by Literary journals. Instead of replying by email, he told me he would answer my question in the form of a blog article, which you can read here. […]

  3. Michel Sauret | Around the World of Books - January 2, 2014

    […] I had originally emailed Martin Slag (whose email name is Ernesto Barbieri?) to get a quote from him on the subject because he writes an unbelievably addicting blog called “Letters of Rejection” which is all about the process and experience of getting short stories rejected by Literary journals. Instead of replying by email, he told me he would answer my question in the form of a blog article, which you can read here. […]

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