Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, January 17, 2011

ruling them out, book by book

Lorrie Moore says, "Send Huck Finn to College":

There are other books more appropriate for an introduction to serious reading. (“To Kill a Mockingbird,” with its social-class caricatures and racially naïve narrator, is not one of them.) Sherman Alexie’s “Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” which vibrantly speaks to every teenager’s predicament when achievement in life is at odds with the demoralized condition of his peer group, is a welcoming book for boys. There must certainly be others and their titles should be shared. Teachers I meet everywhere are always asking, How can we get boys to read? And the answer is, simply, book by book.

But if the ugly language of Huckleberry Finn means, as Moore suggests, that it's not to be assigned until, perhaps, "even graduate school," and we must also refuse to assign to our high-schoolers books whose treatment of social class is insufficiently nuanced and whose narratives are "racially naïve" . . . ? I mean, these are pretty stringent tests, aren't they? Isn't this that hoary old zombie Political Correctness rising once more from the grave? Moore should at least acknowledge these obvious objections. 

8 comments:

  • As I've followed this most recent debate about the use of the n-word, read this post, and read Moore's column, three thoughts come to mind.

    First, I am reminded of the theater teacher I had in high school. When the students selected pieces for monologues or duo scenes, our teacher would not allow the student to change the scene if the student was uncomfortable with the material because of language, sexual references, or anything else. The student could select a different scene, but she couldn't change the text. I think this taught us about respecting the integrity of the text and the context of the playwright.

    Second, the texts that a teacher will select will vary depending on the goal that she has in mind. If my goal is to introduce teenage boys to serious reading, I would select one kind of book. If my goal is to introduce students to the key texts of American literature, I may select different texts. Of course, there may be situations where the same text could serve both purposes.

    Third, I am assuming that in just about any classroom situation, a teacher has a wide variety of texts from which she may choose to reach her goals with the students. I am also assuming that a teacher must know her students in order to make the best choice from among those texts. No matter what level she teaches, she needs to take their interests, maturity level, and the context of their other studies and activities into account.

    So, it seems to me that those three points come into play when selecting texts for students: respecting the integrity of the text, clarity about the goals of the class or course, and the needs and interests of the students. I have found when any of those are unclear or disregarded in some way, teaching a particular text becomes more difficult.

  • Very well said!

  • dunnettreader said...

    Three cheers for Sister Hilda! Seriously.

    I was especially taken aback by Moore's analogy to hypothetical books that were peppered with the epithets "bitch" or "kike." But, but... the point is that Twain's "ugly language" isn't an unending string of epithets. In Huck Finn it's the sheer banality and every-dayness that Jim is dehumanized by a cultural system that can only acknowledge him as one of a species of creature with dark skin, not as a man with his own identity, his own name.

    Which brings me to the PC observation. I too was made uncomfortable by Moore's article. Though the ugly head of PC in education is even more in evidence on the Texas school text board. And now Tennessee's Tea Party is introducing legislation that, according to a leader would address “an awful lot of made-up criticism about, for instance, the founders intruding on the Indians or having slaves or being hypocrites in one way or another." Since we wouldn't want our children to think that US history wasn't all about the ever-expanding sphere of freedom. A sentiment I have some sympathy with, but still...

    Which brings me to the phrase in Obama's Tuscon speech that I found most striking: that we need moral imagination. And isn't that one of the things that great literature does -- exercise our moral imagination. Which is something more than empathy (which Obama also mentioned) -- of putting one's self in another's shoes -- but in being able to look at the world in a whole other way. Like travelling to a foreign country, challenging our comfortable cultural certainties.

    Moore seems to think that the only acceptable guides are those who come from those other ways of being and can share their own direct experience. That the persepective of a privileged viewer, like Harper Lee, is somehow not reliable and accordingly shouldn't be studied (or at least not before graduate school, sheesh).

    But aren't the limits of the moral imagination of the "racially naive narrator" themselves an important part of the story? Don't the stock characters of social-class challenge our own moral imagination? Not that we shouldn't hear the plausibly more reliable voices of the marginalized. But aren't we failing to exercise our own moral imagination if we exclude other perspectives as not authentic? Aren't we just embracing another way of remaining comfortable in our (of course enlightened) cultural certainties?

  • dunnettreader said...

    Blogspot has been cranky on lots of sites today. Seems the ether has swallowed another comment. Any chance it's retrievable?

  • Sorry about that! You never know what it's going to flag as spam or as needing moderation.

    I think the concerns many people have about what books young people are "exposed to" are prompted by a failure to believe that moral imagination can be taught. They see the students as mere victims of whatever they read. (But if you're going to worry about teenage "exposure," To Kill a Mockingbird is what you're worried about? Sheeesh.)

  • Michael Straight said...

    It reads to me like Moore's real problem with Huck Finn is not really a "politically correct" objection to the language, but that she doesn't think it's a very engaging or worthwhile book for teenagers.

    She thinks Twain's portrayal of "the 19th-century theater of American hucksterism" are more an object of historical interest than immediately engaging as literature. She thinks Twain's characterization of Jim is lousy, that he "repeatedly holds Jim up as a figure of howling fun."

    Her concerns about race are more whether a young African-American boy who hasn't read many books should "start of his literary life to be immersed in an even more racist era by reading a celebrated text that exuberantly expresses everything crazy and wicked about that time" than it is fretting about kids having their feelings hurt by seeing the "N-word".

    It's really more "How well does this book work with this age group?" than "Is this book racist?" I can see people arguing with her on those grounds, but personally I'd agree with her that Sherman Alexie's book, for instance, is fantastic and seems much more likely to be successfully read and appreciated by high school students than Huck Finn.

    Just speaking personally, my experience in high school was that most of the books we read were totally inappropriate for me at that age. Moby Dick, King Lear, Sons and Lovers, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, The Scarlet Letter, The Great Gatsby -- I was far too immature to get anything from these books. The Grapes of Wrath, Lord of the Flies, and All The King's Men are the only exceptions I remember actually engaging with -- stuff like Tom Sawyer I enjoyed, but really only at the level of an adventure story.

    High school pretty much convinced me that "literature" was boring and worthless, driving me deeper into the science fiction ghetto. I don't think I read anything on my own outside the sf genre until I was a Junior in college (I have Joseph McClatchy to thank for helping turn me around. Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose was also an important gateway drug about that time, even though I completely missed his point the first time I read it.)

  • It should probably be further noted that Moore’s treatment of “To Kill a Mockingbird” is also marginally flawed in its own right. Scout, the narrator of the novel is not “racially naïve,” although Scout the character may well be. The story is narrated, as the first page tells us, from a point “[w]hen enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them” (3). It is part of the novel's magic that this perspective is skillfully elided; Scout the adult vanishes behind Scout the child, so that by the time Jem breaks his arm in the novel’s conclusion, we’ve nearly forgotten that this incident was the subject of the very first sentence. What Scout’s narration chronicles is her awakening to the same premise that Moore herself insists upon: a dawning awareness that bias cannot be separated “from the attitudes that produced” it and that men are possessed of distinct identities even when they are the subject of that bias. Insisting that Scout the narrator attribute an a priori awareness of this reality to her childhood self is to insist on a literature where characters are never permitted to learn anything at all.

  • As a teacher of high school students one thing I find a bit mystifying about Moore's article is the insinuation that kids cannot understand the book. Usually Huck Finn is taught to juniors, who, for the most part, are around 17 years old. My students are not advanced, but they sure seemed to understand the growth of Huck's conscience and the idea that a text arises from a particular historical moment. There are tons of things we do not grasp at full depth (like the social satirization of the South), but the story's surface seems to hold a superior stickum--once students have read it they hold it as a reference, a work to which our culture alludes often (something useful to know about, as you mention, Dr. Jacobs, in a more recent post), as an incredible symbolic journey.

    But the problem for Moore seems to arise almost entirely from the use of the N word. If Twain had chosen a different word (as opposed to our choosing it) would she have made any of the claims she does? Would the claims about insensitivity toward Jim fall away without that glaring target of offense?

    If we're targeting the N word Twain is hardly the only offender. Through the course of the year the "n" word comes up in an astounding number of books in American literature, from Of Mice and Men to To Kill a Mockingbird to the short stories of Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner.

    The more I babble the more I realize you've already said what ultimately I think: it does seem to be that zombie PC stalking more prey (perhaps in the guise of "social purpose").

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