An Interview with David Bradley

As we investigated the censorship of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, we came across the work of David Bradley. A published author and professor at the University of Oregon, he has advocated against the censorship of the novel. Bradley has been awarded an Academy Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. His short story, “You Remember the Pin Mill,” received the prestigious O. Henry Award in 2014. We reached out to Bradley, asking if he would be willing to participate in an interview about the censorship of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, to which he eagerly agreed. His additional interviews with such media sources as CSB news have further bolstered our insights into the literary history of the novel.

-Moriah Gibson, Tyson Hardnett, Andy Stevens

MG & TH & AS: Where has The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn been censored and why?

DB: I can’t give a definitive answer, because  I haven’t done that kind of research. What I can give you is an excerpt from an introduction talks I’ve given over the years, which at least sounds like a conversation.

One of the earliest responses to Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn was that of the Concord, Massachusetts Public Library Committee, which refused to allow the book on the shelves. The reported grounds for that decision were various, depending on which newspapers were doing the reporting. The most commonly cited source, the Transcript of Boston—a city with a penchant for book-banning—reported the Library Committee’s judgment by indirectly quoting an unnamed member of the committee: “while he does not wish to call it immoral, he thinks it contains but little humor,” and “he regards it as the veriest trash.” Then the Transcript went on to say: “The librarian and the other members of the committee entertain similar views, characterizing it as rough, coarse, inelegant, dealing with a series of experiences not elevating, the whole book being more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people.

Another paper in Boston offered a version that, while slightly different, confirms the Transcript in some critical specifics: It deals with a series of adventures of a very low grade of morality; it is couched in the language of a rough dialect, and all through its pages there is a systematic use of bad grammar and an employment of rough, coarse, inelegant expressions. It is also very irreverent…The whole book is of a class that is more profitable for the slums that it is for respectable people…”

The Springfield, Massachusetts Republican reported the Committee’s grounds were that the book was “trashy and vicious,” and went on to editorialize that the novel’s “moral level is low,” that its “perusal cannot be anything but harmful,” and that “It is time that this influential pseudonym should cease to carry into homes and libraries unworthy productions…” The Summary, a weekly journal published in the interest of the New York State Reformatory, said the Reformatory’s own Library Committee had found Huckleberry Finn an “irreligious” book, and had decided not to shelve it. But The Summary went on to relate that a Professor Sanborn, who had been visiting the Reformatory at the time of the uproar, had been asked to undertake an independent review, and report his finding to the Superintendent of the Reformatory, which suggests the Superintendent wanted the opinion, not only of a Committee but of an expert.

The actions of the committees of the Concord Public Library and the New York State Reformatory were followed by other committees and delegations, to such an extent that in July 1907, Library Journal reported that circulation of Twain’s novel had in some manner been restricted somewhere in America every year since the novel’s publication. In the late Twenties, the focus of protest shifted from the public libraries to the public schools; in 1931 the publisher Harper & Brothers issued an expurgated edition of Huckleberry Finn for high school and junior high school students.

In 1940, Langston Hughes wrote: The word nigger to colored people of high and low degree is like a red rag to a bull. Used rightly or wrongly, ironically or seriously, of necessity for the sake of realism, or impishly for the sake of comedy, it doesn’t matter. Negroes do not like it in any book or play whatsoever, be the book or play ever so sympathetic in its treatment of the basic problems of the race. Even though the book or play is written by a Negro, they do not like it…The word nigger, you see, sums up for us who are colored all the bitter years of insult and struggle in America.

Hughes was not talking about Huckleberry Finn, per se. But his comments anticipated a protest against Twain’s novel by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which led to the banning of the book in New York City Schools in 1957. A real professor named Peaches Henry has suggested an ironic reason for the timing of the protest—the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education:  The presence of black students in the classrooms of white America, the attendant tensions of a country attempting to come to terms with its racial tragedies, and the new empowerment of blacks to protest, led to Huck Finn‘s greatest struggle with censorship and banning. Black protesters, offended by the repetitions of “nigger” in the mouths of white and black characters…objected to the use of Huck Finn.

After similar objections, the use of Huckleberry Finn was restricted in numerous places in subsequent years—in the Philadelphia School District in 1963, at Florida’s Miami-Dade Junior College in 1969, at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois in 1976, to name a few. But the first famous, big-time, big-media case, complete with Nightline interviews and natural irony, occurred in the spring of 1982, in Fairfax County, Virginia, at the Mark Twain Intermediate School. There, a black administrator named John Wallace, led a campaign to have Huckleberry Finn removed because it was, in his words, “the most grotesque example of racist trash ever written.”  Either this was rhetorical excess, or Wallace never read Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin. Probably the latter, as Wallace, who was given to hyperbole, later said, “I don’t care about the First Amendment, I care about children,” and insisted that, “No sensitive, loving teacher would use Huckleberry Finn in class.” Others in Fairfax evidently agreed. According to Wallace:

Huckleberry Finn did not stand up to the scrutiny of two committees of experts: the human relations committee, made up of teachers and administrators, and a book review committee made up of teachers, administrators and parents.

In September of 1984, critic Justin Kaplan claimed Huckleberry Finn was still being banned somewhere, every year. That certainly was true as late as 1995; in March, it was reported that Huckleberry Finn had been removed from the eighth-grade curriculum at a place called West Hills Middle School in New Haven, Connecticut; by December it had been removed from a classroom, or a curriculum, or a required reading list, not only at West Hills Middle School, but at the National Cathedral School in Washington DC, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the East Side Union High School District— high schools, more than 20,000 students—in San Jose, California.

MG & TH & AS: What process have schools employed to censor the book?

DB: As I think the excerpt illustrates, the censorship has not come only from schools officials, but from outside activists, politicians… you name it. What amuses me is that the protests tend to focus on the use of the word “nigger”—which is appropriate both in terms of Twain’s artistic sensibility and his intentions. What I think underlies the protests, however, is shame. Americans are, not unreasonably, ashamed that there ever was chattel slavery in this country, and have employed all kinds of repressive strategies to deny its nature and continuing effects.

MG & TH & AS: What is the effect of teaching one of the abridged versions of the novel that excludes controversial racial elements?

DB: What would be the effect of teaching any challenging text, in any subject, with the controversial elements taken out? Why not take out the fact of slavery—which became a “racial element,” in about 1666? Without the “racial element” there is no plot tension. Jim has nothing to escape without slavery and the threat of being sold away from his home and family. Which seems to me a lot worse than the word “nigger.” Twain actually addressed this issue of names and actions Chapter 52 (ironically, of course)

The men was very huffy, and some of them wanted to hang Jim for an example to all the other niggers around there, so they wouldn’t be trying to run away like Jim done, and making such a raft of trouble, and keeping a whole family scared most to death for days and nights. But the others said, don’t do it, it wouldn’t answer at all; he ain’t our nigger, and his owner would turn up and make us pay for him, sure. So that cooled them down a little, because the people that’s always the most anxious for to hang a nigger that hain’t done just right is always the very ones that ain’t the most anxious to pay for him when they’ve got their satisfaction out of him.

They cussed Jim considerble, though, and give him a cuff or two side the head once in a while… and they took him to the same cabin, and put his own clothes on him, and chained him again, and not to no bed-leg this time, but to a big staple drove into the bottom log, and chained his hands, too, and both legs, and said he warn’t to have nothing but bread and water to eat after this till his owner come, or he was sold at auction because he didn’t come in a certain length of time, and filled up our hole, and said a couple of farmers with guns must stand watch around about the cabin every night, and a bulldog tied to the door in the day-time; and about this time they was through with the job and was tapering off with a kind of generl good-bye cussing, and then the old doctor comes and takes a look, and says:

“Don’t be no rougher on him than you’re obleeged to, because he ain’t a bad nigger. When I got to where I found the boy I see I couldn’t cut the bullet out without some help, and he warn’t in no condition for me to leave to go and get help; and he got a little worse and a little worse, and after a long time he went out of his head, and wouldn’t let me come a-nigh him any more, and said if I chalked his raft he’d kill me, and no end of wild foolishness like that, and I see I couldn’t do anything at all with him; so I says, I got to have help somehow; and the minute I says it out crawls this nigger from somewheres and says he’ll help, and he done it, too, and done it very well. Of course I judged he must be a runaway nigger, and there I was ! and there I had to stick right straight along all the rest of the day and all night. It was a fix, I tell you! I had a couple of patients with the chills, and of course I’d of liked to run up to town and see them, but I dasn’t, because the nigger might get away, and then I’d be to blame; and yet never a skiff come close enough for me to hail. So there I had to stick plumb until daylight this morning; and I never see a nigger that was a better nuss or faithfuller, and yet he was risking his freedom to do it, and was all tired out, too, and I see plain enough he’d been worked main hard lately. I liked the nigger for that; I tell you, gentlemen, a nigger like that is worth a thousand dollars — and kind treatment, too… He ain’t no bad nigger, gentlemen; that’s what I think about him.”

Somebody says:

“Well, it sounds very good, doctor, I’m obleeged to say.”

Then the others softened up a little, too, and I was mighty thankful to that old doctor for doing Jim that good turn; and I was glad it was according to my judgment of him, too; because I thought he had a good heart in him and was a good man the first time I see him. Then they all agreed that Jim had acted very well, and was deserving to have some notice took of it, and reward. So every one of them promised, right out and hearty, that they wouldn’t cuss him no more.

Then they come out and locked him up. I hoped they was going to say he could have one or two of -the chains took off, because they was rotten heavy, or could have meat and greens with his bread and water; but they didn’t think of it…

I think of this of passage every time I hear someone talking about terms that are “offensive” and “hurtful” and “disrespectful” or whatever. My response, as a black American male, is, call me what you will… but take one or two of the chains off, because they are rotten heavy.

MG & TH & AS: How important do you think the education level of a reader is to his or her reception of the novel?

DB: Very. Terrible things have happened when this book is used with children who are simply not old enough to be empathetic towards and respectful of each other. Frankly, there is often nothing nastier or more dangerous than an emotionally and morally under-developed sixteen-year-old, with respect to any interpersonal issue—race, gender, disability. The problem, of course, is that moral instruction in America has fallen by the wayside, especially in public education. Educational theory has concentrated on promoting a positive self-image, rather than empathy and sensitivity. At the same time, the curriculum has been softened to actually limit the intellectual awareness of students, even Advanced Placement students, regarding the historical realities that shaped both the 1830s, when the novel is set, and the 1880s, when it was written. (See question 3)

MG & TH & AS: What strategies should educators use to present the novel in the classroom?

DB: When I speak to teachers about how to teach this book, I emphasize not “sensitivity” which can make black American students self-conscious, but teaching strategies to be avoided or adopted. I have been appalled to learn that in some schools, this book is being read aloud in class, ostensibly because the students won’t read it on their own. Reading aloud is a terrible strategy here, because it places the word “nigger” in the mouth of an authority figure in the hearing of students who are as yet unable to understand narrative irony. Better not to read the book at all; if students are too “unmotivated” or “limited”  (what we used to call lazy or stupid) to read the book for themselves,  that are not capable of contemplating the moral and historical complexities it presents. The book needs to be read in solitude, especially if the classroom is racially mixed; it is, indeed, unfeeling to ask a black American student to confront the word “nigger” in a desegregated classroom situation. I emphasize the need for historical context established through discussion and the reading of short companion texts, specifically the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and the original Military Code of Conduct for prisoners of war. I also emphasize the need to explain the implications and difficulties of Twain’s æsthetic choices, specifically realism and irony; unsophisticated and untutored readers often conflate a first person narrator with the author, and this can cause all kinds of problems. I recommend a classroom exercise based on that old party game “Telephone” or “Russian Scandal,” in which one person whispers a message to another, which is passed through a line of people until the last player announces the message to the entire group. In the variation, the original message is a paragraph used as a quote placed in an interpretive frame (“In (text) (author) writes:” followed by the quote, and then “In other words…” This new text is passed on. In the next step the quote is (supposedly) copied exactly, but the frame has to refer to both the quote and the previous frame. And so on, ad absurdum, which usually is about three iterations. This game is too complicated for the high school class (although it can be used as a series of homework assignments.) But it is most useful in early college-level education, when students are supposed to be developing skills that will allow them to use other texts in their own work. The issue that needs to be examined is not only accuracy of the work, but the motivations behind any variations or misapprehension.

MG & TH & AS: In an interview from Mark I. West’s Trust Your Children: Voices against Censorship in Children’s Literature, you were quoted stating that “Huckleberry Finn is not only one of the best books ever written in this country, but it’s also the most influential.” Why is it the most influential when compared to other literary classics?

DB: Sorry, I don’t recognize the quote… and entirely don’t agree with it. Professor West seems to have quoted me accurately elsewhere from published sources, but I don’t recall an interview with him—although it may have happened. Huckleberry Finn is a wonderful book that can be read with pure enjoyment after over a hundred years, is important as an artistic model, an artifact of literary history and a social protest novel. It has had influence on readers, writers and scholars, and I wish it had more influence on students… and their parents. But other books—and “classic” presupposes this—are similarly influential. I used to insist that graduate creative writing students read Melville’s Moby-Dick and Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom, and would have assigned parts of the Bible if I could have gotten away with it—and the fact that I couldn’t have gotten away with it is part of the reason teaching Huckleberry Finn is a problem. What I would say, in unasked for response to Professor West’s title, is that you can trust your “children” to handle complex history-based texts if they can trust you to give them accurate historical context and moral instruction that promotes acceptance and understanding—not all do. But I wouldn’t trust “children” with Huckleberry Finn. I would only trust young adults.

MG & TH & AS: Why is the novel still considered so important in education in spite of its controversy?

DB: Because some educators value education, as opposed to “student processing.” Like gtmany—but not all—other texts, Huckleberry Finn poses questions of right behavior. The protagonist is an untutored young adult trying to extract right behavior. He is an abused child, who rightly fears death at the hands of his own father, a unrepentant substance abuser. (Can you say “After School Special”) The kind old lady who has adopted him presses religion upon him, but she, and all his obvious role models are corrupted by slavery. He admires a peer who is a fantasist and a liar. His only friend and positive influence—his only adult protector—is a man who is considered by society not to be a man, but property. How does he find his way? (How are you finding your way?) What are his choices? (What are your choices?) Why doesn’t he become a substance abuser like his father? Why doesn’t he become a religious fanatic? Is he right to defy the law and protect Jim’s freedom as best he can? How does he come to recognize Jim’s humanity and right to be as free as he is? How does that happen? And how do these issues recur in modern society? After all, we too have substance abusers and battered children, who seem to have been failed by the moral forces of our society? Real teachers want their students to be able to confront those dangerous issues in the safe space of a classroom. Student processors want to give standardized tests and turn their students loose to find their own way in a world that becomes more confusing by the day.

MG & TH & AS:Do you have anything else you would like to add?

DB: Censorship is a tricky term. We hear the term and think immediately of some authority banning books wholesale or Bowdlerizing texts—and certainly that is a problem. We sued to think of sex. But our current a society seems intent on censoring itself by focusing on “hurtful” words, rather than actions. The worst thing a presidential candidate can do, it seems, is talk dirty about women—never mind the thoughts behind the words which suggest an attitude toward any other human being who has something he wants. That he calls that something a “cunt” or “pussy” is what has people upset. But if “you can grab her vagina” would be less indicative of the thought process. Huckleberry Finn is about so much more than language; it is about what Twain later called “lies of silent assertion”—when you go along to get along. When a female journalist agrees to uncritically interview someone who has already called her a “lightweight… trying to be tough and be sharp” and gone on to say “she’s not very tough and she’s not very sharp… you could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her … wherever,” she has obviously been censored… but I am not sure by whom. Perhaps she has been censored by her bosses… although she could refuse and quit. Perhaps she has been censored by her own ambition; censors are often internal. What makes Huckleberry Finn powerful is that moment when Huck refuses the moral censorship of his society and it’s law and it’s religion;  when he says “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.” Controversial? Absolutely; check out the death toll of the Civil War. Extreme: also absolutely. It’s extremely moral statement. Our political leaders once made such a statement: “We hold these truths to be self-evident,… ” I hope you know the rest from memory. Would that our current political leaders would do the same. They don’t have to, because that statement was deemed too controversial by the first Congress of the United States of America. So, no, we don’t have to teach Huckleberry Finn. We could just teach the Declaration of Independence. Of course we’d have to change the pronouns to avoid offending women, whether cisgendered or transgendered. We could do that without altering the essential meaning. And if we going to be Americans, that essential meaning is what we cannot censor, bowlderize, expunge or in any way deny.