- Many Responses to the Many Voices of Huckleberry Finn
The Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin, who lived under Stalinism and its aftermath, spent most of his life developing a theory of literature as a reaction to, and tool for, coping with repressive authoritarian ideologies. He was most interested in the novel as a literary form because he believed that by its very nature the novel resists any tendency to absolutism or narrow ideology. Novels depict the interactions of specific characters, in specific situations, speaking in different idiosyncratic voices, and therefore they are the supreme form for depicting the competing voices of life. A crucial concept in Bakhtin's theory is dialogue or polyphony. These terms do not merely refer to the dialogue spoken by the different characters in a novel, but include the implicit "dialogue" between a novel's narrator and its author, as well as the dialogue aroused in the mind of the reader between the text presently being read and all competing discourses outside it. By its very nature, any novel worthy of the name could not be politically "correct."
Clearly, Bakhtin's theory is very germane to Mark Twain's polyphonic novel Huckleberry Finn, with its naive, pre-adolescent narrator. His ideas are perhaps even more applicable to the storm of many-voiced controversy that has surrounded this novel since its first publication, and which has continued and probably increased, up to the present time. If Bakhtin is right, we should learn something simply by attending to some of these competing voices.
Mark Twain's masterpiece has now attained the dubious distinction of having been "banned from more libraries and schools than any other book in history" (Champion 160). At the same time the book is widely recognized as one of the great masterpieces of world literature and ranked third in a 1984 poll organized by the National Endowment for the Humanities asking which books should be read by all students in high school. Huckleberry Finn was beaten only by Shakespeare and the founding American documents (Champion 202). I love this book, teach it often to college classes, and have given inservice day workshops on it to high [End Page 77] school teachers. Yet I believe it is essential to recognize that because of its very power and continuing relevance it can be, in the words of James M. Cox's essay on the subject, "A Hard Book to Take." Any reading that does not recognize this difficulty is a diminished one.
The polarization of opinion about this book is everywhere apparent. The normally light-hearted and humorous columnist Russell Baker has concluded seriously that only people who have reached the age of thirty-five and are experienced in many different spheres of life are mature enough for Huckleberry Finn(Champion 203). Yet many of us know junior high school students who have been delighted by it. The critic Wayne C. Booth begins his recent book The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction with a discussion of some of the problems that teaching Twain's novel can present. He quotes a respected African-American colleague on the subject:
It's hard for me to say this, but I have to say it anyway. I simply can't teach Huckleberry Finn again. The way Mark Twain portrays Jim is so offensive to me that I get angry in class, and I can't get all those liberal white kids to understand why I'm angry.(3)
If a professor of literature, who has the power and autonomy to choose which books are read in class, can be so offended by Huckleberry Finn, then surely compassionate teachers should admit the possibility that some younger readers, without that power, might be equally offended by having the book thrust upon them.
The point at this juncture is not whether or not people who are offended are misinterpreting the book—and surely Wolfgang Iser, Stanley Fish, and other reader-response theorists have taught us that with any complex work of literature interpretive closure is not always possible. The point is rather that when teaching or recommending a book dealing with an extremely sensitive topic such as racism or child...