“First of all,” [Atticus] said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
— “To Kill a Mockingbird”
I couldn’t seem to ... harden ... against him ... I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n ... so I could go on sleeping; and ... do[ing] everything he could think of for me ... I says to myself: “All right, then, I’ll go to hell” ... and never thought no more about reforming ... I would take up wickedness ... And for a starter, I would ... steal Jim out of slavery...; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too ...
— “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”
There is no such thing as a truly educated American who has not read the masterpieces of Harper Lee and Mark Twain. So public high school students in Duluth will have more self-enrichment to seek now that Duluth school officials have decided to remove two of our nation’s literary treasures from their required English curriculum.
But don’t fret none, as Huck might say. No one who truly cares about being an educated person — or about English, literature, or history — will fail in time to seek out Atticus and Scout, Huck and Jim, Boo and Tom, the King and the Duke, and all the rest.
And when they find them, they’ll encounter the plain but profound advice from the single-father hero of “Mockingbird” — that striving to understand experiences quite unlike one’s own is pretty much the beginning of all understanding. It is, after all, why stories matter to us in the first place.
Thinking about that advice with any seriousness in connection with Duluth’s decision may not inspire one to agree with it. But it does increase the risk of at least comprehending why black parents, say, might worry that the wounding portraits of historic African-American oppression and subjugation painted in these books could be more demoralizing than enlightening for some teenagers.
There is dignity in such characters asTom, the field hand falsely accused of rape in “Mockingbird,” and Jim, the runaway slave in “Huck Finn,” but their victimization and humiliation are brutal.
It is precisely because these works of genius render life in the antebellum slavery era and the Deep South of the Depression so vividly and unforgettably that not every young person may be quite ready for the experience. (Those who are ready, the Duluth schools emphasize, remain free to read the books.)
Yes, danger lurks in these kinds of considerations. A suffocating, fashionably enlightened orthodoxy threatens freedom of thought and learning today, especially within educational institutions, with the proliferation of “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” to protect brittle young dogmatists from the “micro-aggressions” of challenging ideas.
But “Mockingbird” and “Huck Finn,” for all their glories, are not real remedies for that particular form of cloistered ignorance. These books disturb many, it appears, mainly with their plentiful use of the “N-word” — and in truth a racial slur, even as an accurate piece of historical dialogue, is not much of an “idea” to miss out on. Considering only what they actually say about America’s racial past, these classics have in fact become rather conventional. They’d be downright politically correct in that respect if only they weren’t so honest in their language and their portrayals.
In 1884, when “Huck Finn” was first published, and in 1960, when “To Kill a Mockingbird” appeared, unflinching narratives about white supremacy and bigotry were daring. Today there is little risk that young people — whether as students or simply as consumers of our culture’s self-portraits — will be shielded from the knowledge that American history is tragically stained by painful and shameful racial injustice.
There’s more danger that they’ll learn little else about American history.
So, no, the real tragedy should these books one day reach fewer Americans would not be in the loss of a unique racial-justice message. The real loss would result because these works are so much more than stories about America’s racial past.
To say “Huck Finn” is about slavery in the Old South — or that “To Kill a Mockingbird” is about the gussied-up lynch law that prevailed under Jim Crow — is rather like saying “Hamlet” is about the indecisiveness of medieval Danish princes.
It isn’t only, or even especially, Tom Robinson whose “skin” Scout struggles to “walk around in.” There also is Boo Radley, her spooky recluse neighbor with his “shy ways,” who haunts her nightmares but ultimately saves her life. There is Tom’s pitiful accuser, who, in what becomes his fatal mistake, he dares to feel sorry for. There is Mr. Cunningham, the honest, proud and impoverished legal client from the backward rural white community, who comes one night to lynch an innocent man but turns from violence when confronted by a child’s innocent friendliness.
It is that puzzled child’s-eye perspective that makes “To Kill a Mockingbird” a timeless portrait of the human condition and the many faces worn by heroism.
Huck, too, is a child narrator guiding us through a fallen world. But whereas Scout’s father takes a lonely, principled stand against the injustice of his community, Huck is a rebel against slavery who never for a moment suspects that the institution is wrong. He sees himself as sinful, driven to “take up wickedness,” when simple love for his friend Jim compels him to strike a blow against human bondage.
“Huck Finn” is about the power of social pressure and ideological orthodoxy to disguise moral corruption as virtue. It’s about the folly of ever trusting the fashionable morality of one’s own time and place. Any time, any place. It’s a warning that some of the worst mistakes come when we’re absolutely sure about something — and everyone we know agrees with us.
So let us all try to consider the Duluth schools’ decision from others’ point of view, being careful not to accept unquestioningly what our social or political groups reflexively proclaim.
And wherever that leaves us, let us do a favor to all readers and urge them not to miss these books.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.