Sunday, April 18, 2010

No. 5: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

Once upon a time, people thought it was OK to own other people. They seemed to justify it by rationalizing that someone with skin a different color from theirs wasn't really a person at all, but some sub-human category akin to cattle. Some of these people who thought this way lived in the American South. They owned slaves.

Then one day, there was a big giant war and the people who owned slaves were forced to set them free. (Thank God!) A couple years later, a man who had lived through it, both in the North and in the South, wrote a book about it. His name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens but he was better known by his pen name, Mark Twain. The book he wrote was called The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Even though it was first published in 1885, it still irritates people enough to make them ban it today.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn tells the story of a misfit teenager (Huck) and a black slave (Jim) who are both looking for freedom, one from slavery, and the other from a alcoholic abusive father. As they share a raft together on the Mississippi River, Huck comes to know Jim as a man, and not just as a N-word.

Dah Dah Dun!

There it is. Yeah, I said it - the dreaded N-Word, which Huck uses over 100 times in the book. Twain's critics say this is racism, pure and simple. The book's defenders have countered that Jim is the most noble character in it and Huck's language is typical of his time. Critics counter the counter argument stating that refering to a person of color as the N-word is unacceptable, historically accurate or not.

I was surprised to learn in my research that Huckleberry Finn's language offended readers in its day as well. Completely unlike modern readers (who frighten bloggers so much that they use the "N-Word" rather than typing the actual word in their posts), the original readers of the book had no problem at all with the N-word. They had problems with Huck's use of colloquial slang. Louisa May Alcott hated Huckleberry Finn and served on the very first library committee to ever ban it. She criticized Twain saying among other things that "Huck should not sweat. He should perspire." Oh Louisa, you kill me, girl!

Twain himself thought the banning would be a great boon to book sales.

As for the charge of racism, I invite you all to read Huckleberry Finn and judge for yourself. Honestly, it's worth reading just for the insight into 19th Century life and the hilarious Shakespeare mangling "To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin." That's the other thing that people seem to forget - this book is funny! is also suspenseful, thought provoking, and heartbreaking.

As early as 1891 it was being call "a masterpiece". Ernest Hemingway called it the great American novel, saying "all modern American literature comes from Huck Finn". Hemingway didn't like the end though and urged readers to stop reading where Jim is taken from Huck, saying everything that comes after that point is "a cheat". You'll just have to read it and decide for yourself.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

No. 42: Beloved by Toni Morrison

We thought we'd try something different here at The Daily Banning and play a little Book Jeopardy! Here is our virtual host, Alex Trebek.

Trebek: "Thank you, Daily Banning. I'm happy to be here. Let's get started. Pick a category, Gentle Readers."

Gentle Readers: "We'll take Books Kim Didn't Fully Understand for $200."

Trebek: "The answer is ... Written by a Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, this book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988."

Gentle Readers: "What is Beloved?"

Queue music of smartness...

Trebek: "That is the correct answer for $200!"

Daily Banning: "Thanks, Alex. You can go now."

Trebek: "But we're not finished with the category."

Daily Banning: "Actually we are. Besides, there is a picture of the book along with its name in the title of this post so our readers probably already knew the answer anyway. Thanks again for stopping by."

That was my attempt at stalling. I'm finding it really difficult to explain this book. I am in no way qualified to analyze its symbolism or messages because, frankly, I didn't really get all of it. Here's what I can tell you: Beloved is a beautifully written story about the effects of slavery on those who survived it. Set at the end of the Civil War, Morrison tells the story of an escaped slave, Sethe, who [Spoiler Alert, stop here if you don't want to know what happens in the story] when caught, chooses to kill her children rather than send them back into slavery. The rage of Sethe's dead child literally rocks the house she lives in, until it takes on physical form and comes back to life to torment her.

At least, that's what I got out of it. I could be wrong as the novel is written in an experimental style in which its pieces are broken apart and the reader is left to reassemble them. I, apparently, am not good at this. There was a whole "he died on his face, she died on her face" and "she wasn't even smiling" section that left me thinking that Morrison was a little crazy. However, the novel is still worth the effort if only to get insights like this:
“Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”
I am not the only one who thinks this novel is better than average. A survey of writers and literary critics conducted by The New York Times found Beloved to be the best work of American fiction of the past 25 years.

It gets banned because its subject matter is difficult (really difficult) to read. Critics (mostly parents) cite the novel's treatment of bestiality, infanticide, racism, and sex as inappropriate for underage readers. As recently as 2007 and 2008, Beloved was pulled from library shelves in Kentucky, Idaho, and Illinois by concerned parents and school boards.

It helps to remember that Beloved is based on the true story of Margaret Garner. Is the banning of this novel akin to burying the ugly truth of America's involvement in slavery? I'll leave it to you to decide, Gentle Readers.