Fear in Writing: Appropriate Literature, Part Three

Today in Literary History

Today in Literary History...December 14, 1907: Rudyard Kipling receives the Nobel prize for literature, the first English-language writer to do so.ud

Monday, April 12, 2010

Appropriate Literature, Part Three

In keeping with the idea of what is appropriate in literature, I point you to Friday's "This Day in Literary History" blip:

April 9, 1859: A 23-year-old Missouri man named Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain) receives his steamboat pilot's license.

We all know who Twain was, and have heard many flippant quotes from the man.  Today I ask you, what does the content of Twain's work make you feel?  Does it royally piss you off that black people were treated with such disrespect, even by children?  Does it make you think "classic" literature should be redefined?  Are you okay with these significant works of art continuing to be read and taught in our classrooms, despite their portrayal of prejudice and slavery?

For a starting point, here is my belief: Twain was a fantastic writer and a significant person in American history.  As much as we would like to, we cannot erase the past--how we treated African-Americans, the harshness of the 19th century, etc.  We can control how we teach these works.  We can teach the brilliance of Twain's style, but point out the problems with the way he treated blacks, in conjunction with a little history of the period.  We can also teach Twain's work alongside his contemporary, Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose famous anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin contributed to the American Civil War.

But what do you think?

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  1. Oh, I think it should be taught! He's making a point in his books. And it infuriates me when "Huck Finn" is banned.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. We should teach Twain for the same reason we teach Shakespeare: his writing and storytelling resonate far beyond his own time period. Sure the portrayal of Jim in "Huck Finn" is as an uneducated black man -- that was more common in the United States of Twain's time than finding an educated one (again, please correct me if I've erred).

    It is unfair, and irredeemably arrogant of anyone to disregard the fact that Twain is a consummate storyteller because of the portrayals of blacks in his stories. Here's the thing: Twain is a product of his period the same way we are products of our own.

    We can't say how attitudes will change in a hundred years, and some of our own writings now may be seen as "backward" and "uneducated." That doesn't merit them any less worth than the stories of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries have to our experience.

    I feel the same way about reading any story written in a period before our own through modern eyes. Reading the Greek playwrights without understanding their time period is akin to stumbling through a dark room full of furniture with only a penlight to guide you.

    Aaand it looks like I've once again gotten on a soapbox.

    I blame Michelle for posting about things I'm passionate about. Yep. That's it. :)

  3. Fantastic!

    Elizabeth- I agree. So much can be gleaned from the Huck Finn story, as well as Twain's writing style.

    Matthew- I hope I keep hitting hotspots with you, because I love your passion! And I completely agree with your assessment.

  4. Michele --

    My undergrad's in Journalism, so any talk about media or censorship are good ways to get me going. My opinion boils down to "Censorship is bad unless your free speech infringes on someone else's free speech."

    And that's usually enough to get people going for at least an hour. ;)

  5. Journalist here, too, and I feel the same way. Your rights stop where another's start, and all that.

  6. Twain was capturing the moment of his time. I was watching Schindler's List on HBO last night. The movie captured the moment of the time. Its history that's not sugar coated.

    Stephen Tremp

  7. Yes, his work is a sign of the times. That aspect alone could be a portion of the discussion in classrooms of his book.

    A hundred years from now, what aspect will they look back on in our literature with shock and dibelief?

  8. I think that can be said of many of the historical writers. I don't like what he said but it is a glimpse into what people thought. Racism still exists today but I think much of it could be eliminated if parents taught their children not to be so. I don't think children learn racism from books.

    Great post.


  9. Writers are influenced by the times they live in and have to be studied with that in mind. It's interesting to try to imagine the world a hundred years from now. How will today's authors be judged?

    Straight From Hel

  10. I agree - we can use Twain for a great teaching tool - how even some impressive people from history didn't have it all together.

  11. I don't belief in prettifying (if that's a word) history. There's nothing better for understanding it than being in the head of someone who lived then. Twain's work is literature, and we should study it the same as Shakespeare (who had a lot of teenage suicide) or classics like Plato (who hated art and basically advocated eugenics/selective breeding). Yes, when Twain is taught to students, a history lesson should accompany it, and it should be balanced with books like Uncle Tom's Cabin. Book banning, though, is wrong (period)

  12. Such a tricky topic when it comes to Twain. Many will say he was actually staunchly opposed to slavery, at least later in his life--but more particularly to the legacy of slavery (racism). The problem is that Twain's work was very satirical, so it's often interpreted as quite racist. While this is fairly irrefutable when it comes to his views on Native Americans and possibly even the Irish in his earlier work, it's clearer that his views were actually very anti-slavery (especially when his books are read in conjunction to his later published articles and statements given the nature of man and the injustice of slavery). The biggest hurdle to a thorough understanding of Twain's beliefs is that the politics of his time would not have allowed public opposition (even implied) to slavery. Many Southerners saw slavery as an economic necessity, so to oppose it was to beg for a lynching. Even after slavery was abolished, that hatred remained, and it was difficult to stand in opposition to slavery (even after the fact) or to racism and its aftermath. So Twain worked with what he had--humor, which can be misinterpreted. I really dislike the way Twain is taught in schools. In Huck Finn and Puddin'head Wilson, Twain actually examines the ethical implications of slavery--many believe Twain was actually condemning the racism that was born from slavery, but so often it's taught on a surface level, which uses modern interpretations of a classic. Perhaps we can see how far we have come, but how can we hold a product of the 19th century to the same standards of the 21st? In much of his literature, when he depicted the mistreatment of African Americans, it was generally, imo, to illustrate the horror of it through humor, not to encourage it. As for Native Americans, well, the same doesn't hold quite as true--but again, also a product of his time. I should probably mention that I've studied Twain rather extensively. Ha. Here's a pretty good article on Twain and his views on race: http://dig.lib.niu.edu/twain/race.html

    I'm so glad you brought this up, though. I agree that Twain was a brilliant writer. Flawed, but still amazing. And in all works of history, we need to be careful to place the literature within its context of time, location, politics, etc., otherwise, we'd never be able to read these classics.

  13. Great post! I agree with what you said, we should teach him but alongside other writers. For one viewpoint, you offer a contrasting viewpoint which gives a greater sense of the time these books were written. I read Twain when I was younger and I am not ruined. :)