As it happens, I wasn't an English or American Lit major and have never read the book in question, though it's hard to escape knowing most of what happens in it. But a few weeks ago, before all this broke in the news, I took it down, determined that this gap in my cultural base should be filled in, and gave it a shot. And I went completely Holden Caulfield and just couldn't get past the preciousness of Twain's dialect and into the character itself. I read enough pages to know that there wasn't going to be some point at which it stopped sounding phony to me and then went out and bought the next volume of "The Hunger Games."
Twain himself described a classic as a book that everyone praises and nobody has read, but I think Huck Finn has been shoved down enough people's throats that it doesn't fit the definition. (Whether they've actually read it or just skimmed it to get through the seminar being a separate question. I skimmed a lot of books in college that I actually did go back and read after graduation. See below.)
I have two questions about this new edition of Huck Finn. The first is, why bother? That is, aside from American Lit majors, who needs to read this book in order to be educated? It's not "Hamlet." I don't even think it's "The Scarlet Letter." I would also note that, unlike "Uncle Tom's Cabin," the various slave narratives and the autobiography of Frederick Douglass, it came out nearly a generation after slavery ended, so that its historical importance in that struggle is somewhat diminished.
But, more to the point, who needs to read it who is not prepared to deal with the historical context of its original language?
When I was in college, I got busted in French class one day for knowing about a passage in "Candide" that had been cut from the edition we were supposed to be translating, though not from the English version that I was actually reading. Fair enough. A little ridicule from the professor and I went on chastened if no more bilingual than before. But what we were (supposed to be) doing was using an amusing French text to improve our translation skills. Had we actually been studying Voltaire, it would have been absurd to use a bowdlerized text.
That's a far cry from my son's ninth grade English class, which spent a semester on a three-quarters-of-an-inch-thick version of "Les Miserables," in the course of which they discussed Jeen Val-jeen. This makes me think of Woody Allen's joke about speed-reading "War and Peace": "It's about Russia." Why not have the kids read something (A) that they have a chance of understanding (B) that was written in their own language and (C) that is presented as the author intended?
Which brings me to the next question: Why do people think "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" was written for children?
Because the narrator is a child?
In that case, who is the intended audience for "Black Beauty," which is narrated by a horse?