Sunday, September 24, 2006

Huck, Holden, and Captain Underpants

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It's that time of year again, my friends. It's that time when we give thanks for one of our most precious and beloved freedoms.

Oh yes, I know that the Fourth of July is already over and that it's not yet Thanksgiving. But this, loyal readers, is Banned Books Week. This is the week (Sept. 23-30) when the American Library Association reminds us that the freedom to read is a freedom to be treasured -- and that there are people who would like to set themselves up as the arbiters of what other people (or other people's children) should or should not be able to check out of a library.

Some of the books people have tried to ban are J.D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye" (which among other things, deals with a teenage boy's awkward attempts at sexual escapades), and Dav Pilkey's comic "Captain Underpants" series, which is basically one long series of booger, poop and, yes, underwear jokes.


No. 1 on my banned books hit parade has to be Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."

I'll admit I'm a bit of a Twain junkie, and I've always found this tale of Huck, the archetypal non-conformist, preferable to the more conventional "Tom Sawyer." Tom, after all, ends his book rich and working toward respectability, whereas Huck's tale ends with these immortal words: "I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally's going to adopt me and sivilise me, and I can't stand it. I been there before."

Huck was a rock 'n' roller a hundred years before rock 'n roll existed.

It's not those anarchist sentiments, however, that raised the hackles of some of the Mrs. Grundys of the world and caused some to call for "Huck Finn" to be removed from school shelves.

Depressingly, it's not the Right that objects to Huck, it's the Left, who feel that Huck's use of a certain racial epithet beginning with "n" means he's a racist and thus, that the book promotes racist attitudes.

Well, I'll give those folks credit for at least being well-meaning, but I have to say it: A well-meaning bonehead is still a bonehead.

Of course, Huck's a racist, or at least he starts out that way. He was raised in one of the most racist societies that ever existed in America, and it would stretch the reader's imagination to the snapping point if he were anything else.

The "n" word rolls off his tongue as easily as "an" or "the." That's what makes the story of his journey with Jim, the runaway slave who befriends him on his travels down the river, such an odyssey.

I don't think there's a more moving moment in American literature than the moment where Huck, who's convinced that helping Jim escape is a sin that will send him to hell, writes a note that will betray Jim to the slave-catchers.

"I felt good," Huck says, "and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn't do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking -- thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell."

But then, Huck starts to think. He thinks about the things they've been through together and all the things Jim's done to look out for him. He reaches a moment of decision: "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 [the note] up."

I've read that scene a few dozen times, and it still chokes me up. Think about it. This young man, who's probably heard some pretty graphic descriptions of hell in his life, and who's been brought up to believe that people like Jim are less than human, chooses to risk that fire rather than betray his friend.

At that moment, Huck casts aside everything he's been raised to believe to follow what he knows in his heart to be true.

That moment wouldn't be nearly as profound had Huck not started out where he did, namely poor white trash who thought nothing of referring to men like Jim using that despised "n" word.

So, you may ask, what do Salinger's Holden Caulfield, Captain Underpants and Huck Finn have in common? They all deal with things that maybe we'd all like to pretend don't exist: awkward teenage sexuality, racism, and, yes, boogers.

But anyone who thinks that small children don't already spend a lot of time time laughing about boogers, poop and underwear obviously hasn't spent much time around small children. Anyone who thinks teenage boys don't think about sex has either never been a teenaged boy or has forgotten what it's like.

Anyone who'd like to deny that some people start off racist -- and learn better -- obviously doesn't have much understanding of or faith in humanity. And anyone who thinks we can make these things go away by pulling books that deal with these topics off library shelves is living in a dream world.

Dusty Rhoades lives, writes, practices law and reads banned books in Carthage.

12 comments:

Janine said...

Amen, brother!

Richard said...

Hear! Hear! Nicely put! It's high time we sell the book-censors down the river!

ladyqkat said...

And this is one reason I am so glad I found this link. I have missed reading what you write.

David Terrenoire said...

My only question is, how can I get my book banned?

Seems like the path to immortality and best sellerdom, if you ask me.

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

Remember too that many instances of book banning go unreported. It's only when people actually speak up in defense of the challenged books that this foolishness comes to light. Censors and would-be censors count on the fact that most people don't like to rock the boat. Pay attention to what goes on at meetings of your local school and public library boards.

nathan said...

I teach a class on free speech and censorship and 'Huck Finn' is something of a highlight of the course. It is, so far as I can tell, the most banned book in all of American history. Every couple of decades a new batch of reasons why it needs to be banned crops up (all of them dreadfully stupid). You're right, Dusty, about boneheads on the left banning it for the N word. There are also plenty of asshats on the right (and douchebags in the middle) who have their own issues with this masterpiece. Chief amongst their complaints is that the book encourages/glorifies criminal and "low" behavior. In Twain's time the beef was the use of slang and dialect. Sigh. . .

Yep, the greatest novel in the nation's history, packed with warmth, adventure, humor, and genuine humanity, and EVERYONE hates it. Makes perfect sense.

Kristy said...

Well, the amens and hear, hears have alredy been said, so I'll just nod my head vigorously and try to look intelligent...

Kristy said...

And despite the fact that I didn't spell "already" correctly I promise that I am intelligent...

BTW, Nathan, I've got a 2007 debut for you: FINN by Jon Clinch. A'check it out...

nathan said...

A'ight I shall indeed.

Anonymous said...

Oh my goodness. i totally agree. im a sophmore and we just finished reading huck , and we're having debates on whether it should be banned or not and you just took the words out of my mouth. it is an AMAZING novel, and the ironic thing is the ignorant people that bann books like these probably havent even read them, or just hear negative things other people say.


whatever i suppose.
in short...

i completely agreee :)

Anonymous said...

Wow! we are doin a debate in class over this book and unfourtunately i have to argue the side that says this book is racist... if you were my opponent i would lose ... awesome wording :)

JD Rhoades said...

Thanks...and don't worry. Having to make the opposite side's argument helps you to understand it , which is sometimes the key to defeating it.