When Great Art Happens to Bad People

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Every few years, it makes the papers: somebody opposes the teaching of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in some high school, or even wants it banned from the local library. The reason, of course, is the book's frequent use of the word "nigger" (over 200 occurrences, according to people who count such things). When one such incident made a splash sometime in the '90s, and the minister who was leading the crusade made a large number of appearances on TV and radio, my friend Wendy Lesser, a distinguished literary critic and editor, protested to me, "But he's missing the whole point!"

She was right, of course. To seize on a single word, even a single word reiterated 200-plus times, without regard to its context or purpose represents a misreading that seems almost willful. But to my mind, defending the teaching of the book on those grounds, while justified on the merits, also misses the whole point, or at least concedes far too much. Because, what if the protest didn't in fact miss the point? What if Huckleberry Finn actually were a racist book, rather than a non-racist book that permits its characters to speak in an argot appropriate to their time and circumstance? Would the banning then be justified?

What if the book in question were "Benito Cereno," a work I was in fact taught in high school. Melville's story doesn't, as far as I'm able to recall, employ the word "nigger," but, even though the author was almost certainly an abolitionist, it reveals an implicit racism that I believe is entirely absent from Twain's novel. Or what if it were Joseph Conrad's Nostromo, which both uses the word and at least suggests the concomitant attitude (the author speaks disparagingly of something he sees fit to call "nigger democracy")? Should those books not be taught? Should they be banned from libraries, or at least hidden away from young readers?

In the case of Huckleberry Finn, the minister who was leading the charge back in the '90s delivered what he apparently regarded as a devastating clincher: the defenders of the book, he asserted, wouldn't be nearly so sanguine about it if it contained the word "kike." He was apparently unfamiliar with The Sun Also Rises, another great American novel, which does indeed contain the word "kike," and whose casual anti-Semitism is woven into the fabric of the narrative.  (The Sun Also Rises contains the word "nigger," too, but, weirdly, the very minor character to whom it refers is treated with a modicum of respect.)

He also seemed unaware of the much-taught Merchant of Venice, which, while lacking the word "kike" (there is no entry for "kike" in the O.E.D., and I'm unfamiliar with its provenance, but I would wager it was not yet in circulation in the early 17th century), can hardly be defended against charges of racial prejudice.  Attempts to do precisely that are regularly made, of course, but they aren't especially convincing.

No, I think we are forced to deal with a very uncomfortable fact: Great art is sometimes -- perhaps often -- made by very bad people, or people who harbor very ugly attitudes, or attitudes we now find abhorrent. Anyone who cares about, anyone who feels an investment in, the Western Canon must come to private terms with this phenomenon.

One method is simple denial, the "he didn't really mean it" defense. We are actually meant to sympathize with Shylock, some critics assure us. "Gerontion" and "Sweeney Among the Nightingales" are benign, not emblematic of any bigotry on T.S. Eliot's part. "Samuel Goldenberg and Shmuel" is just an evocative piano piece.

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Erik Tarloff is a novelist, screenwriter, and journalist.

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