The Classics and Your Child


So, I understand that a new, edited version of Mark Twain’s classic novel Huckleberry Finn has been distributed.  All instances of the “N-word” have been excised and replaced with the word “Slave”.  Aside from the inanity of believing that anyone could improve on genius, and aside from the supreme insult to Mr. Twain’s superior judgement, I take umbrage at the idea that a classic work of art ought to be changed in any way in order to accommodate readers who are too ignorant to understand it or too lazy to study it in proper context.   What next?  Rewrite history to make Pocahontas and John Smith fall in love?  Give Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid a happy ending?  Oh, wait. . . .

I understand that the “N-word” is demeaning and should not be used in polite society.  But aside from that fact that Twain was recording the authentic dialect and vocabulary of his times, the documenting of demeaning and insulting behavior is often used in great literature to underline a point which the author is making.  A good writer weighs each word he writes and chooses them with great care.  And Mark Twain was a good writer.  He chose to use this word, not just to record history as it was, but advisedly as a example of how we should NOT treat other human beings.  Anyone who has actually read Huckleberry Finn understands that Jim, the slave who runs away with Huck, is the true hero of the book.  His noble character is only enhanced by the demeaning words and cruel behavior of the white people around him.  The fact that this boy who is in his care treats him as badly as anyone else in society helps to showcase Jim’s inherent goodness.

But enough of defending Mark Twain, whose work speaks for itself and needs no defense.  The point I desire to make in this post is that anyone who actually READS Twain’s book understands why he chose to write it as he did.  Those who campaign to change it have obviously not read it.  Here’s my suggested solution to any parent who objects to any classical literature being read by his or her child:  read it yourself!  Discuss it with your child!  Any misunderstanding that your child might have concerning the words or meanings of the book he is reading can be cleared up by you in a simple discussion.  If your child has a question you can’t answer, find someone who can help you both out.  A good book is the best way humankind has found for spreading knowledge and ideas to new generations, and there are so, so many good books out there.  Encourage your child to read intelligently.  Don’t take good books away from him, or change their wording, because you are unwilling to discuss them with him.  If, after careful reading, you still chose to censor a book for you own child, please do not give him a Bowdlerized copy of any classic.  And, please, do not try to ban a classic from everyone else’s children.

Now, please keep in mind that I am talking about true, classical literature.  I am certainly not implying that any and all books are good for your child to read.   For example, if you see a Harlequin Romance novel in someone’s hand, whether that person be young or old, take it away immediately and dispose of it in the trash!  No one needs to kill brain cells with such drivel.  By all means, keep an eye on what your child is reading.  But censor with knowledge and intelligence, not knee-jerk reaction.  Also keep in mind that, while you may censor a certain book for reasons of your own, you don’t have the right to censor other people’s children.  There were some books I did not allow my children to read when they were growing up–none of them classics, all of them popular modern offerings–but I would never argue with other parents who did not have my identical convictions.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “The Classics and Your Child

  1. Richard Ross

    what about Classic Comics?

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  2. Jayme

    Great post, ML! I couldn’t agree more.

    I recently read a thread on a homeschooling list with great sadness. It was a discussion about which classic books were not safe to give our children to read – including such dangerous books as The Secret Garden and The Witch of Blackbird Pond.

    No – we don’t give our children license to read anything out there – but I will not limit what they read to moralistic drivel, either. You are so right – books are a wonderful tool to teach ideas – and to remind us, adults and children alike, of not only what people have done in the past but why they did those things. One of my main goals while I home school our kids is to teach them to read intelligently and critically.

    OK. Stepping down from your soapbox now. 😀

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  3. The bottom line is. Do not change someone elses words period! This is beyond offensive and just plain wrong. From the aforementioned “trash novels” to the greatest of works, nobody has the right to change one written word except the author. I do not for one second hold myself in the same category as Twain but to me the words I write are precious, do not touch them.
    We have become so PC that no debate of differing opinion should exist in some circles. I would rather they take the book out of the school than I had see them massacre this mans writing.
    Good words MariLynn

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  4. Thanks, ladies! Yes, I agree that we have a responsibility to teach our children how to read things with which we disagree with discernment and intelligence. Keeping them ignorant of other people’s viewpoints only leads to problems later on when they encounter different beliefs and don’t know how to react to them or how to have intelligent discourse on diverse subjects. Knowing what you believe and why you believe it is of supreme importance; but just as important is to understand what you do NOT believe and why you don’t believe it!

    I agree with you, too, Shelia, about just taking Twain’s work out of the schools rather than submit him to the indignity of Bowdlerizing him. Take it out of the schools and put it back into the home, where it should be! Parents should be reading Twain’s books to their own kids and discussing them with them at home, whether they are homeschooled or not! I went to public school, but my parents took the time to read good books to me and my siblings in the evenings and during vacations. We didn’t know we were being educated: we thought we were enjoying quality family time.

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