I’m taking a short break from the story of helium to revisit a previous topic that has nothing to do with science or sea turtles. But it gives me a different kind of wonder. And I feel the need to defend it.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is under attack again. There’s a new version coming out in which “the n-word” is replaced with “slave”. For those of you squeamish about such things, I warn you that I’ll be using “the n-word” later in this entry to talk about what I still believe is the most important work of fiction I’ve ever read. So bail out now if you must.
The most important moment in the book is when Huck is struggling with himself over what to do about Jim’s imprisonment on the Phelps’ farm. Jim is a runaway slave. Huck has helped Jim to escape Miss Watson. In Huck’s world, that’s stealing. It’s taking someone else’s property. It’s not just a crime, but a deep sin. The culture Huck grew up in makes no qualms about it. If you behave in this way, you are damned. Helping Jim escape is stealing. Huck writes out a note to Miss Watson explaining what she must do to get Jim back. And then, staring at the note, he starts thinking.
It’s so important to remember that Huck knows exactly what society is telling him. We as modern readers of course side with Huck in his doubts. We don’t see people as property. We don’t see some people as less human than others. We see Huck’s act as heroic. But he didn’t see it that way, and that’s what is important. Nothing in Huck’s world, nothing, except his own experiences with Jim on the raft, could have given him any idea that Jim is a human being. It’s only after Huck gets to know Jim, is cared for by Jim, comes to love Jim, that he can see Jim as a human being. And Huck, the great hero that he is about to become, finds truth not in the society around him but instead in himself. He tears up the note and speaks those wonderful, freeing, self-affirming words, “All right then, I’ll go to Hell!”
The use of “the n-word” both before and after that scene is the great controversy. Many would argue that this is just the way people spoke back then, and so of course Twain was just trying to reflect reality. Don’t gloss over reality for political correctness. Fine, all well and good. But for me it goes so much deeper than that. The use of the word in one particular scene shows exactly what the word meant, what it maybe still means for some, and just how far Huck had come – a distance we all can only hope for in so many areas of our lives.
After Huck made his decision, he went to the Phelps’ farm to try to free Jim. In talking with Mrs. Phelps, Huck spins a lie about a steamboat trip to throw the woman off his track. Here it comes.
“It warn’t the grounding — that didn’t keep us back but a little. We blowed out a cylinder-head.”
“Good gracious! anybody hurt?”
“No’m. Killed a nigger.”
“Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt. “
And there it is. That is why you simply cannot edit Huck Finn. Mrs. Phelps (Aunt Sally, as it turns out) asks if anyone was hurt when the steamboat cylinder exploded. Huck, knowing exactly what Aunt Sally would expect an ordinary boy in her culture to say, exactly what a slave-thief wouldn’t say, tells this good, sweet lady that no one was hurt, but the explosion killed a nigger. And Aunt Sally responds accordingly, that it was lucky that no person was hurt.
If you change that word, you lose the sting, the blow, the utter irony of the scene. Huck gets it. He gets that Jim is a man, a human being, someone who deserves love and respect – and freedom. Aunt Sally will never get it. Jim is just a nigger, not a person at all. It has nothing to do with his slave status. It is Jim’s humanity that is in question – who he is, not what he does. And Huck knows exactly where Aunt Sally is, exactly what Huck must to do to gain her trust. But, bless him for being the hero he is, Huck has already decided he won’t be the person Aunt Sally and the world want him to be. “Alright, then, I’ll go to hell!”
Don’t change a word of Huck Finn. Instead, learn from what’s there. Huck made the journey that is almost impossible to make. He looked into himself and found truth.
OK, back to helium.