The New Yorker Out Loud Volume II

(Mouth Almighty)

By J.R. Jones

When I was teaching American literature at the University of Alabama, one of my first chores every year was to reread The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. If you were ever an undergrad earning a liberal arts degree, you almost certainly read it too: it figures prominently in the second volume of The Norton Anthology of American Literature and nearly every other American-lit survey, echoing Hemingway’s famous assertion that it’s the cornerstone of all modern American fiction. Yet it was banned upon publication in 1885 by the public library of Concord, Massachusetts, and as recently as last year it ranked sixth on the American Library Association’s list of “Most Challenged Books.” The book’s deep structural flaws guarantee this endless controversy: written in fits and starts over eight years, it began as a children’s story, grew darker as it progressed, then retreated into the tomfoolery of its opening chapters. And by delivering his moral inquiry in one wicked gut laugh after another, Mark Twain invited the humorless to take offense. In the 113 years since Huckleberry Finn was published, plenty of people have taken him up on it.

I can’t remember how many times I’ve read the novel–seven? eight?–but it always proved so hilarious that I could almost bear the thought of another four months teaching the same old shit. By “the same old shit” I mean, of course, the canon: that highly select gathering of fiction, essays, and poetry consecrated by those interchangeable anthologies as the greatest hits of dead white culture. In the English department at UA, as at universities around the country, the canon and its limits sparked a bitter debate between the endlessly warring factions of pissed-off postmodernist women and tenured white guys sifting through the student body for second wives. And though they were bickering over the relative merits of more contemporary writing, Twain had started the whole mess by dragging our literature out of the faux European drawing room and into the harsh and beautiful backwoods of the Mississippi valley, with its incredible diversity of cultures and dialects. That was Hemingway’s point: that by raising the oral tradition to the highest level of artistic expression, Twain had opened the door for anyone to follow him. So some kind of genius grant should go to the A and R person at Mercury’s Mouth Almighty imprint who talked ex-Public Enemy front man Chuck D into reading “Jim and the Dead Man,” a lost fragment published in the New Yorker in 1995, for the new talking book The New Yorker Out Loud Volume II.

Huckleberry Finn was first banned in America largely because of its slang. “It is couched in the language of a rough dialect,” declared the Concord librarians, “and all through its pages there is a systematic use of bad grammar and an employment of rough, coarse, inelegant expressions.” Twain had prefaced the book with an explanation that it included no less than seven specific dialects carefully re-created from his own experiences along the Mississippi, and in the text that followed he used them all to subvert the conventional morality of his times. The same battle between the formal and the colloquial rages on today, as the rich oral culture of rap, hip-hop, and the poetry slam gnaws at the edges of our rarefied literary journals. Language is power, and as the vocabulary of hip-hop infiltrates our dictionaries, it permanently shapes our national consciousness. The media outcry over Ebonics clearly demonstrates that the ownership of language–like the ownership of our literary canon–is no trivial matter. To quote De La Soul, the stakes is high.

But today the slang of Huckleberry Finn tears at us in a different way: the word nigger appears 215 times in the original edition. At the University of Alabama, where the ghost of George Wallace still stands in the schoolhouse door, leading off a semester with Huckleberry Finn was a crash course in racial diplomacy. In the very first reading assignment, Tom Sawyer convinces the slave Jim that he’s been sent into a trance by witches. “Niggers would come miles to hear Jim tell about it,” Huck recalls, “and he was more looked up to than any nigger in that country. Strange niggers would stand with their mouths open and look him all over, same as if he was a wonder. Niggers is always talking about witches in the dark by the kitchen fire,” and so forth.

How my small contingent of black students managed to choke this down and still show up the next morning was beyond me. Typically they clustered near the back of the room–except for one or two who risked their friends’ disdain by sitting in the front row to soak up every ounce of my expensive wisdom–and the blank acceptance on their faces told me that, growing up in the deep south, this sort of indignity was par for the course. The white students would squirm in embarrassment when the word turned up, except for the odd farm boy who had no idea that it was offensive and a few shit-eating frat rats who relished the opportunity to use it publicly without fear of censure. I would point out that in many respects what we were studying was a piece of history, that “nigger” as used in Huckleberry Finn was essentially a denotative term, and that the whole of the book charted Huck’s moral growth as he rejects society and accepts Jim as a friend and equal. But Twain was a captive of his times as well, and as the more liberal students struggled to articulate the novel’s humane but ultimately paternalistic message, I could see the black students thinking, Yeah, fuck that.

The last year I taught American lit I was so sick of the course, the university, and the politics of surviving as a Yankee instructor in the cradle of the Confederacy that I decided to raise some hell. I assigned The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Instructors were allowed to supplement the Norton Anthology with one or two mass-market paperbacks; in fact this one had already won a place on the department’s graduate-level unofficial reading list. (Like Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five and The Naked and the Dead, it could be recycled indefinitely by the tenured professors, who had stopped reading books and simply came up with new course ideas to accommodate the old titles.) And more than any other book, Malcolm X had become the African-American Huckleberry Finn, narrated by an outcast from the lowest reaches of society as he grows into a person of penetrating moral intelligence. It even inverts the literary achievement of Twain’s book, Malcolm X and his collaborator, Alex Haley, crafting a formal prose as masterful as Huck’s vivid colloquialisms.

And boy, did it rattle my white students, with its merciless indictment of racist Amerika and its promise of bloody vengeance against the white devils. “Why are we reading this?” one of the frat rats finally demanded. I gave him a buttery explanation similar to the reasoning above, though I can’t deny that I’d also assigned the book for the sheer pleasure of scaring the bejesus out of him personally. For some students the book’s anger was a welcome revelation: with something approaching relief, one blond belle exclaimed, “Why, he’s a bigger racist than my daddy!” The black students loved every minute of it, and they criticized Malcolm X’s spite as eagerly as their white classmates had tried to apologize for Huck. There were probably more minds opened and hearts healed in that week and a half than in all my years of teaching combined.

I can only imagine that Chuck D–who’s currently developing a school outreach program called REACH (Rappers Educating All Curricula through Hip-Hop)–agreed to this New Yorker project in the same spirit. God knows the reading itself must have been a trial. The word nigger never appears in “Jim and the Dead Man,” but the fragment can easily be read as the worst sort of racist stereotyping. Shortly after Huck hooks up with Jim, who has escaped, the two of them hole up in a cave. In the fragment Jim tells Huck the spectral story of how a former master sent him into a darkened laboratory to warm up a corpse for medical dissection, and how he fled in terror after the corpse’s jerking leg knocked out the only candle in the room–feets, do yo’ stuff! In his endnotes to the 1996 comprehensive edition, which includes the fragment published by the New Yorker, Twain scholar Victor Doyno points out that African religions distinguished between dead people who’d been forgotten and those who were still remembered, and that Jim’s suspicion that the corpse was still animate might have been inspired more by religion than superstition. But I can’t read “Jim and the Dead Man” without picturing Stepin Fetchit.

Chuck D’s reading is a fascinating case study in the politics of diction. Throughout the story, he plays up its roots in gothic horror–it’s the same sort of ghostly tale Twain told to such great effect when he was on the lecture circuit–and he uses the same vehement apocalyptic tone that colors Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet. He dutifully corrupts the name of Jim’s master as “Mars. William.” But again and again he passes over the negro dialect of Twain’s fragment in favor of a more urban voice: “sho” becomes “sure,” “gwyne” becomes “goin’,” “warn’t” becomes “wasn’t,” “dey” becomes “there.” He retains the musicality of Jim’s speech but also legitimizes the story’s dark foreboding. It becomes the stuff of urban myth, the story of a slave whose cowardly master orders him to shake hands with death.

I don’t know if I’ll ever read Huckleberry Finn again–there are too many other brilliant books out there to be read seven or eight times. But come the beginning of the next college semester thousands more people–black and white, brown and yellow–will read it for the first time. It’s become as much a part of our heritage as the flag, though how it defines us will probably still be debated a hundred years from now. In the end, that may be the only justification for knighting one book or another as part of our literary canon: so we can argue its merits and in the process come to know each other.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Chuck D photo by Michael Angelo Chester/ album cover.