In the Obama era, whither Finn and Finch?

Now that Barack Obama is president, novels that use “the N-word,” such as Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men should be dumped from high school reading lists, argues an English teacher in Washington state.

He’d encourage students to read these classics, but wouldn’t assign them, writes John Foley.

Those books are old, and we’re ready for new.

Huck Finn is too slow for modern readers and uses challenging Southern dialect, writes Foley.  Mockingbird is “dated” because Atticus Finch, tells his daughter not to use the N-word because it’s “common.”  Foley doesn’t mention the “N-word” in Of Mice and Men, but there is a black ranch hand so it’s probably in there.  Foley thinks a book set in the Depression won’t resonate with today’s teens, though World War II is timely.

As replacements, he suggests David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars (prejudice against Japanese-Americans during World War II),  Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato (Vietnam War) and Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove.

Like Huck, “Dove” involves an epic journey of discovery and loss and addresses an important social issue — the terrible treatment of women in the Old West. That issue does not rank as high as slavery on our national list of shame, but it definitely makes the list.

This seems awfully reductive to me: The three classics aren’t just social issue books. And I’d classify Snow Falling on Cedars as OK but not great. I haven’t read the other two: Frankly, Lonesome Dove was too long — and I’m a McMurtry fan.

Via The Daily Grind.

Update: “I don’t see kids reading,” says McMurtry, who owns a used and rare book store in his home town of Archer City, Texas.

John Foley responds to the criticism, adding that he’d also remove Gatsby from the reading list because the spoiled characters piss him off.  I think they’re supposed to.

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Comments

  1. John Foley responds to his critics here:
    http://johnfoleywrites.com/allow-me-to-retort

  2. “Those books are old, and we’re ready for new.”

    Least worthwhile justification for changing that I’ve heard. Already in this country we have different generations that can’t “talk” to one another, all because the “old” is merrily thrown out every 5-10 years and replaced with the “new.” And while some of the “old” is poor and in need of replacement, and some of the “new” is worthy, age-of-information is not the only determinant of its quality.

    And I do hope that those who are complaining about Mockingbird because there’s a line in it that says using the n-word is “common” are aware of the OTHER meaning of “common” – the one the author intended – that “common” means “vulgar” and “not something nice people do.” Because I’ve run into people who weren’t familiar with that meaning, they only thought of “common” as “you see it every day.”

    Then again, in our times, vulgarity IS pretty common, in the sense of seeing it way too often.

    I read “Mockingbird” on my own at 14 and loved it. I read “Huck Finn” as a sophomore. Liked it OK but hated all of the “teach to the controversy” crap that went along with it. I figured we were all bright enough to figure out Twain wasn’t a racist without being TOLD.

  3. “Huck Finn is too slow for modern readers and uses challenging Southern dialect”…God forbid that kids should be *challenged*, or that they should learn to do anything that requires sustained attention.

    “Those books are old, and we’re ready for new”…see my post on temporal bigotry.

  4. >>”because it’s nearly impossible to teach kids who feel alienated and offended by the material…”

    A presumption. Still, this sounds ignorant, even coming from a teacher.

  5. Robert Wright says:

    There’s an English teacher in Washington state who’s kind of stupid.

  6. I think this is complicated. I do think that one of my brothers’ English teachers was incredibly stupid in trying to teach The Handmaiden’s Tale to a class of teenage boys, so I can see his point about the difficulties of teaching a book like Huckleberry Finn nowadays.
    On the other hand, I think “Those books are old, and we’re ready for new.” is a very silly argument. Shakespeare and Homer are still being performed, and indeed occasionally made into big Hollywood movies (Hamlet, Troy, Shakespeare in Love, Romeo + Juliet). A book doesn’t stop being good or relevant just because it’s old. Humans don’t change much.

    And which books are taught should be a decision made not merely based on social issues, but on the beauty of the language, plot, and what are cultural reference points in our society.

  7. Both Lonesome Dove and Snow Falling on Cedars have quite a bit of violence and sex, particularly Lonesome Dove. They are rather adult-themed books, so assigning them to high-schoolers doesn’t seem like the best idea. College age, perhaps.

    Lonesome Dove won the Pulitzer and is a great book, but I doubt Lori getting “poked” every other page is really going to teach kids about how badly women were treated in the old west.

    Both Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn are told from the point of view of a child. In spite of the challenging language (Hey, compound sentences!), their plots are engrossing and accessible.

  8. Here is an interesting lede from a 1995 article about Guterson –

    David Guterson says he owes the wonderful success of his first novel to a reclusive Southern woman who only wrote one book. That woman is Harper Lee and the book she wrote was, as everyone knows, “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

    “I owe a lot to ‘To Kill A Mockingbird,’ Guterson said at a reading in Berkeley earlier this month. “I followed very much the same structure and addressed the same concerns. I’m glad that book was part of my life.”

    When Guterson’s book, “Snow Falling on Cedars,” won the Pen/Faulkner Award earlier this year, he wrote to Harper Lee asking her to come to the award ceremony in Washington, D.C. Guterson didn’t say whether Lee answered his letter, but she definitely didn’t come to the award ceremony.

    – Most writers likely owe some debt to others whose writings have influenced them. Just found it interesting that Guterson is so specific about the influence Lee had on this specific book when it is one of the recommended replacements.

  9. As Hemingway once noted, “All American literature begins with one book, and that book is Adventures of Huckleberry.” If there is one additional book that I would consider a must read for American students, it’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” for, as I note to my classes, it’s nearly the perfect book. As educators, we are purveyors of culture who offer and guide our students through challenging material that will complement their understanding of “the human condition.” Few books do this as well as the two the mis-guided teacher from Washington seeks to banish. Sadly, he has a very narrow view of the books, their themes, and their significance. While he may have read the books – though I doubt his ability to read effectively – he has clearly done none of the scholarly research that should accompany the teaching of any novel. I am, however, pleased by the general consensus in opposition to him.

  10. One high school here in Las Vegas, whose population is ovrwhelmingly black, bans the teaching of Huck Finn outright, not wanting to deal with the inevitable outrage of people who don’t understand Twain. I’d love to see Obama use his power to promote better understanding, and it could well start with him clarifying for the hesitant that Huck Finn is ABOUT racism, not racist itself. That alone would make him one of the most effectively pro education presidents ever.

  11. Without exploring the culture of the past, how will we ever teach how far we’ve come?

  12. Huck Finn is too slow for modern readers and uses challenging Southern dialect, writes Foley.

    I read this in eighth grade in 1984 in Hawaii. At the time I had hardly ever heard any Southern dialect, and had never seen it written before. Yet I had no trouble reading the book. In fact, I fell in love with Twain’s language and read passages out loud for pleasure, something I almost never do. The Southern dialect remains my favorite 25 years later, thanks to Twain.

    And as if the medium weren’t fascinating enough, the book also had a message …

  13. What an awful fate to have to read books that are only assigned because they make the appropriate social arguments. My God, at least the old guys thought first to entertain. And they wanted to entertain a well-read citizenry who demanded dense plots, fascinating characters, and complex writing. I’d like to see a modern writer out do Moby Dick, War and Peace, Pride and Prejudice, Heart of Darkness, The Iliad, etc. (Name of the Rose does a good job)

    I read old literature because much of it is unequaled by anything written today. The classics were written by people who were very educated about the literature which had preceded them. They had a wide knowledge of history and stories from which to draw. Our writers often come off as shallow because all they know is themselves.

  14. MOTIVATION IS THE KEY.

    Nothing against Huck Finn, but how about some modern, updated books for teens?

  15. I successfully read the whitewash segment from Tom Sawyer to my daughter’s second grade class. They loved it.

  16. He’s wrong. I teach Of Mice and Men every year (and it is full of the n-word) and my students love it. I always read the last chapter aloud and we’re all weeping at the end of it. FWIW, the class I teach it to is usually almost entirely African American. I just ask them how they want to handle the n-word.

    There is no one book that all teens love or don’t love. You present a range of titles, old and modern, and hope all the kids enjoy at least one of them during the course of the year. I have kids whose favorite book all year is Great Expectations.

    This argument comes up all the time. It’s a sign of bad teaching. Classical literature is classical because it appeals across time and place. Find the appeal and teach it.

  17. should Foley’s colleague’s reading list have removed Swift’s Modest Proposal when Kennedy was elected for all the same reasons?

    http://ridge.schoolwires.com/158420112718222997/blank/browse.asp?A=383&BMDRN=2000&BCOB=0&C=55383

  18. Wait…he’d remove a book from a reading list because the characters “piss HIM off”?

    Never mind that that was most likely Fitzgerald’s intent; if we’re only going to teach what makes us happy, it would be a poor world indeed.

    (I read lots of Trollope and have to say that most of his upper crust folks irritate the heck out of me. But I keep reading because I love Trollope; love the world he has created. And perhaps on some level I love feeling irritated at the stupid petty-aristocrats who never did anything with there lives and will never really BE anything)

    Gatsby is a gorgeous book but reading it always makes me sad. But I think that’s part of it’s reason for being.

  19. Well, I read Huckleberry Finn on my own as a kid, and loved it. And I have given To Kill a Mockingbird to adolescent nieces — who loved it.

    And, if I may digress a bit, I suspect that many boys would like Homer. (Not so sure about girls.)

  20. I prefer Tom Sawyer and The Prince and the Pauper to Huck Finn. 😀

    And To Kill a Mockingbird is just awesome. In my experience, even those students who typically hate assigned reading on principle (Lord of the Flies, The Jungle, Fahrenheit 451, even short books like Animal Farm) often enjoy TKaM.

  21. Robert Wright says:

    I apologize for straying off topic here, but I have a public confession to make. I’ve read The Great Gatsby five times and not once did I like it.

    I’ve given up trying to appreciate it. I will not read it a sixth time.

    I’d rather just conclude I’m some kind of idiot.

    As for Huck Finn, it’s on my iPhone now and I’m enjoying rereading it.

    It’s generally agreed that Hemingway over praised it.

    But reading it in the 8th grade? I think that’s too soon to read it.

    But then again, I don’t get Fitzgerald.

  22. I don’t get the enthusiasm for To Kill a Mockingbird. I once saw a black professor on the telly discussing how mediocre a book it is, and I had to agree with her. It is not great literature, and I avoid teaching it at all costs. It’s not even good. The characters are black and white two-dimensional cardboard cutouts. The rednecks are evil, the blacks are victims, and the self-righteous Atticus is too good to be true. There is nothing here to examine or explore like there is in The Great Gatsby. I think the novel is popular due, in part, to the fact that the reader can feel morally superior to white trailer trash as he identifies with the demigod, Atticus. Shakespeare, the consummate craftsmen of characterization, understood that even the evil (save Iago) have some redeeming qualities, and the good flaws. To Kill a Mockingbird is about as deep as a rain puddle. Besides, it’s so oooooooooold.

  23. Teens can find their own easy readers on their own time. What will happen is public schools will ditch Twain and Fitzgerald, and private schools will continue to assign them, and the gap will go on.

    My public high school in Billings, Montana, had us read Moby Dick, Thoreau, The Scarlet Letter and Emily Dickinson in junior year American Lit. Sr. year I read European Lit, and when I got to my Ivy League college, I’d already done most of my freshman syllabus. But that was years ago, and besides the wench is dead.

    John Foley might be a writer and teacher, but no one with any visual intelligence would use that photo of himself. Doofus. Doofus with a sense of self-promotion.

    (I’m one of those who thinks Truman Capote wrote Mockingbird.)

  24. You’re mystified that there’s a vicarious thrill in standing alone yet calmly certain of yourself against a tide of fear and hatred?

    Also, the story’s told from the point of view of a little girl whose father seems to be a mensch. That may be as close as most guys get to genuine demigodhood.

  25. Andy Freeman says:

    > I think this is complicated. I do think that one of my brothers’ English teachers was incredibly stupid in trying to teach The Handmaiden’s Tale to a class of teenage boys,

    That’s because it’s a well-written screed that argues that they’re evil.

    > so I can see his point about the difficulties of teaching a book like Huckleberry Finn nowadays.

    What difficulties? It’s a freakin adventure story.

    There may be some difficulties in convincing them that there’s an abortion subtext, but ….

  26. Andy, the difficulty with Huckleberry Finn is the use of the word “nigger” in it, which comes with a lot of associated baggage. If people perceive that they are being insulted, this causes problems with teaching. I used the word “perceive” here, because it’s how the audience perceives it, not how the author meant it, that matters. I’ve never been able to read Walter Scott after reading Ivanhoe because his portrayl of Jews disgusted me, I’ve since been told that it was meant as an attack on ant-Semitism of his day and was very progressive in that sense, but still I just don’t want to pick up another book of his.

  27. Andy Freeman says:

    > Andy, the difficulty with Huckleberry Finn is the use of the word “nigger” in it, which comes with a lot of associated baggage. If people perceive that they are being insulted, this causes problems with teaching.

    Since those kids call each other “nigger”, both as an insult and as affection, they’re perfectly capable of figuring out when they’re being insulted.

    The great sin of HF is that it shows white trash improving himself. Even the character’s expression of white guilt isn’t enough to save a book that shows something so beyond the pale.

    Feel free to argue that “The Handmaid’s Tale” treats men acceptably.

  28. The teacher had a letter to the editor in the LA Times, which leads me to believe that he’s either angling for a book deal or making the morning show circuit. Sometimes publicity is too easy to get.

  29. Since those kids call each other “nigger”, both as an insult and as affection, they’re perfectly capable of figuring out when they’re being insulted.

    Within the group yes. Outside the group, the question of insults gets more complicated, because you don’t know the intentions of the other group. Mis-communications happen all the time across cultures – I doubt that black American kids are the one group in recorded history to have the magic ability to always accurately figure out what people from other cultures mean. And sometimes, even if you do intellectually know what someone meant, the emotional impact of what they said can be too hard to work through, which is why I gave the example of my reaction to Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.

    Also, of course, using racist words when you are obviously a member of the group referred to has an impact different to using racist words about another group. It’s like joking about your own incompetence, versus joking about your spouse’s incompetence. If you “insult” a group you are clearly a member of, you are “insulting” yourself, so people are much more likely to read it as a joke than as a purposefully-meant insult. (The “clearly a member” qualifier is important, Jeff Foxworthy can tell jokes in a Southern US drawl that just wouldn’t work for a random person communicating in text. And of course people can launch criticisms of their own group that are clearly meant as insults and often get taken as such).

    Feel free to argue that “The Handmaid’s Tale” treats men acceptably.

    I don’t feel it does treat men acceptably, so I would have difficulty making such an argument. One of the reasons I quit English classes as soon as possible was that I disliked making arguments I didn’t believe in. I know that freedom of speech gives me the right to make such an argument, and I don’t wish to prevent anyone else from making such an argument, but just because you have told me to feel free to do so, doesn’t mean that I actually feel free to do so. Not everything boils down to legal rights. Sorry, if you want an argument that “The Handmaid’s Tale” treats men acceptably, you will have to find someone else, even repeating your phrase makes me feel slightly icky.

  30. Alex Bensky says:

    I rather doubt that the teacher who inflicted “The handmaid’s Tale” on her class cared a whit about the boys. I didn’t even think it was a very good novel; she has a nice style but she doesn’t raise moral issues, she lectures on them.

    I agree with BadaBing. “To Kill a Mockingbird” is like “The Catcher In the Rye” in the sense that the older you get the less worthwhile it seems. (I wouldn’t compare them on another basis.) When I first read Salinger’s book I was in eighth grade and thought it was the greatest novel ever. I reread t a couple of decades later and realized that Holden’s problem isn’t that everyone misunderstands him, it’s that he’s understood all too well.

    “To Kill a Mockingbird” does indeed let us all feel very, very virtuous when it’s over. It’s a decent novel; a great one causes us to think about the issues, not be smug about them.

    I’m not sure once you go down this road where you roll to a halt. “Moby Dick” is about killing whales, quite un-p.c. these days. “The Red Badge of Courage” probably is seen as glorification of war. “The Grapes of Wrath” is long and doesn’t necessarily offer an unalloyed positive view of poor people, but Steinbeck was pretty much a fellow traveler at the time so to this crowd that’s a point in his favor.

    And for goodness sake, what kind of teacher would offer a student something the student finds challenging, or require a book whose setting and characters are beyond that with which the student is immediately familiar?

  31. While I wouldn’t call “To Kill A Mockingbird” a great novel – not because I don’t think it is a great novel but because I don’t feel qualified to make that distinction – there were more stories in it then the one the novel’s best know for and there were more prejudices confronted then just the racial.

    The prejudice Scout had to confront in herself wasn’t racial but her fear of the mentally ill and that whole storyline was handled more deftly and thoughtfully then the racial prejudice storyline.

    In retrospect I wonder if the novel wasn’t actually aimed more at prejudices about the mentally ill then it was about racial prejudice.

  32. Andy Freeman says:

    > I doubt that black American kids are the one group in recorded history to have the magic ability to always accurately figure out what people from other cultures mean.

    And they’re going to learn by never being exposed? Right.

    There are folks in HF who use “nigger” as an insult. They’re the bad guys.

    Those kids live in a world where strangers say “nigger”. They cope. It’s absurd to believe that they can’t handle the word in a book.

    >>Feel free to argue that “The Handmaid’s Tale” treats men acceptably.

    > I don’t feel it does treat men acceptably

    The double standard is the point. It’s okay to trash white boys. It’s not okay to expose any kids to bad people who insult black people.

    I don’t really care whether HF gets taught, but the double standard is wrong and a culture that disdains education doesn’t have standing to complain about reading assignments.

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