It happened a couple of years ago in Manchester, Connecticut, about a 16-minute drive from the rambling brick house where Mark Twain wrote Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in longhand at a small table tucked into the corner of his billiard room. A parent complained that the book was demeaning to African Americans because of its frequent use of the word "nigger," sparking a moratorium on classroom use of the classic. Meetings and hearings followed, where the value of the book and its use of the word was debated thoroughly, with plenty of bitterness and resentment on both sides.
It was not a new story for Huckleberry Finn. It has been one of the most-banned books in the United States, ever since the Concord, Mass. Public Library rejected it for its "coarse language" in 1885, the year the book was first published in the United States. But as we near the 125th anniversary of that publication on February 18, the debate, if anything, has gotten hotter. An "achingly poignant example of mistaken protest is the widespread repudiation of Huckleberry Finn, now one of the most beleaguered texts in American literature," wrote Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy in his deeply scholarly Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word (Random House, 2002).
At The Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, where I work, this troublesomeness is a matter of never-ending discussion and affects all our lives. We like to think we take the issue on directly -- at dozens of sessions for teachers our Education Director, Craig Hotchkiss, talks in blunt terms about how tough the word is when brought into the classroom. It's a rude word. Using it thoughtlessly would, in fact, be acting rudely toward our community, and Clemens, for all his rough edges, put a great deal of stock in good manners and decency toward his neighbors in Hartford.
The instinct is to leap to the defense of the book, which is after all completely defensible. Huck and his friend, the slave Jim -- like Clemens in his own youth -- live in a place and time where slavery is the natural order of things. No one in Huck's circle would think of referring to a black man as anything else. This authenticity is vital to the book -- it just doesn't survive censoring that word. And it sets up Huck's world, and his famous epiphany. Given the choice between going to hell (as anyone helping an escaped slave would naturally be expected to do) and helping a friend, his quiet response evokes cheers: "Well then, I'll go to hell."
And Clemens wasn't just writing about the slavery of decades past. Over the years he worked on the book, the South was regressing after the hopeful era of Reconstruction to the long night of economic slavery, lynchings and segregation for African Americans.
During the Manchester controversy, staff members from the Mark Twain House were sent over to help discuss the issue with parents and school officials. It didn't go over too well. Pointing out that Mark Twain also wrote virulently about the murderous prejudice abroad in America -- wrote, in fact, an essay called "The United States of Lyncherdom" -- didn't cut it.
One Mark Twain House guide, acting independently in his capacity as a member of the racism committee of his church, knew all about the literary and anti-racist merit of the book, but spoke at a meeting to convey the feelings of the community. After all, how could you not be protective of children when they were asked to read a book with that word in it more than 200 times?
"It's not about Huck Finn and it's not about Mark Twain," Manchester school administrator Bruce Thorndike wrote in The Hartford Courant. "It's about responding to a legitimate parent concern in a measured, sensitive and unbiased manner." Ultimately, the school district lifted the moratorium, counseling such sensitivity in its presentation.
Which is as it should be. And speaking of sensitivity, as we approach the anniversary date, how can we best observe it at the place where Clemens lived when he worked on it, late at night, seated at that table in the corner of the billiard room? The Mark Twain House has chosen to do it in two ways on Feb. 18. One is to provide dramatic readings from Huckleberry Finn performed by a local political street theater group in the mold of the famed San Francisco Mime Troupe -- the Hartford version being called The HartBeat Ensemble. And musical entertainment will be provided by an extraordinary group of performers who play frequently in the subway station beneath Grand Central in New York City, The Ebony Hillbillies. They are an uncommon breed: African American performers who play Southern string band music often considered "white."
Their leader, Henrique Prince, explains: "These songs are part of Americana, but because of the directions commercial music has pushed everyone into -- and the fact that in black communities, mainly because of the banjo, the music was maligned because of its association with Jim Crow and other unpleasant things -- the art form has been somewhat forgotten... The roots of the modern jazz and blues, including the first evidence of syncopation, can be found there."
In other words, this group is trying to move us past stereotypes to the kind of authenticity Mark Twain sought when he sat at that table in the corner, carefully choosing his wording for Huckleberry Finn. Let's hope the rest of the world will be able to follow these men one day.
The Huckleberry Finn 125th Anniversary Celebration takes place at The Mark Twain House & Museum Hartford, on Thursday, Feb. 18, at 7:30 p.m. For information and tickets call 860-280-3130.
Steve Courtney, publicist at The Mark Twain House & Museum, is the author of Joseph Hopkins Twichell, The Life and Times of Mark Twain's Closest Friend, which won the 2009 Connecticut Book Award for biography. Previously, Courtney was a journalist at the Hartford Courant for thirty years.