A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Mart Twain and the N-word

When I was in high school, I had a history teacher named Salvatore Occhipinti who would announce at the beginning of every school year that any student who wrote what he considered an "intelligent" book report on "Huckleberry Finn" would get an automatic A in the class and be exempted from all exams and papers for the rest of the year.
But, he added, nobody had ever done so.
I was too chicken to take Mr. Occhipinti up on his challenge, and a good thing, too. I probably would have said that the book is a picaresque novel about the adventures of Huck and a runaway slave named Jim as they travel on a raft down the Mississippi.
All of which is true, of course, but it completely misses the point. There's a reason why every great American writer since Twain's time - including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and T.S. Eliot - has called "Huckleberry Finn" the best American novel ever.
"All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called 'Huckleberry Finn,'" said Hemingway. "There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since."
But now comes word that a publishing company called NewSouth Books is coming out with an expurgated version of the novel, and it's hired Alan Gribben, chairman of the English department at Auburn University, to do the censoring.
At issue: Twain's liberal use of the N-word, which offends a lot of people.
But not in Professor Gribben's version. The N-word has been replaced by "slave."
Only one problem with this approach: It completely negates what the novel is all about.
"Huckleberry Finn" is about racism. It's the story of how somebody who has been a racist all his life - namely, Huck - unlearns his racism, told by the racist himself.
OF COURSE he's going to use the N-word! That's how racists talk! (Or, at least, think.)
Huck is a racist because he's been taught since childhood that slavery is a good thing, that God approves of it, and that if he helps a runaway slave like Jim, he'll go straight to hell.
As he gets to know Jim, he realizes that Jim is a human being just like him, and a very good human being at that.
But his conscience keeps gnawing at him, and finally he resists the sinful temptation to help Jim and writes a letter to Miss Watson, Jim's owner, telling her where her "property" can be recovered.
Then comes the most sublime moment in American literature:
"I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: 'All right, then, I'll go to hell' - and tore it up."
I still can't read that paragraph without weeping for joy. If there's hope for Huck, there's hope for all of us.
But the magic doesn't work if you mess with Twain's words. He knew what he was doing. Despite the use of this disgusting word - or maybe because of it - "Huckleberry Finn" is a profoundly anti-racist work.
I'm sure Professor Gribben is well intentioned. But I'll tell you one thing: He would have gotten an F from Mr. Occhipinti.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Pilgrims' Progress

(Above: Cardinal Newman)

On September 19, John Henry Cardinal Newman, one of the most prominent churchmen of the 19th Century, was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in a ceremony in Newman's home town, Birmingham, England, that was attended by more than 60,000 pilgrims.
Two of those pilgrims were John Cummins, Bishop emeritus of the Diocese of Oakland, and Rev. George Crespin, pastor emeritus of St. Joseph the Worker parish in Berkeley.
The two have been friends since the early '60s, when Crespin was the very first priest ordained in the newly-formed Diocese of Oakland, which was split off from the Archdiocese of San Francisco in 1962. Cummins was the diocese's first chancellor and Crespin's mentor.
Cummins has been a Newman fan since his seminary days, when he read Newman's famous Advent sermon, "Unreal Words."
"His point was that when you talk about God you're talking about mystery, no matter what you say," says Cummins. "I never forgot it. It made a heck of an impression on me."
As Bishop, Cummins used to quote Newman so much, people would tease him about it. Naturally, he wanted to attend the beatification.
"But I knew how much he hates to travel alone," says Crespin. "So I said, 'OK, I'll go with you.'"
Before traveling to England, they stopped in Rome for a few days to visit some old friends who work at the Vatican.
"That was our only mistake - going to Rome before we went to England," says Crespin. "We should have gone to England first because after Rome, the food in England was a big comedown."
But food aside, Birmingham turned out to be everything they hoped for - and more.
"We had been worried that people might think the Pope was trying to poach followers from the Church of England because Newman left the Anglican Church to become a Roman Catholic," says Crespin. "But there was no resentment at all. In fact, I noticed a number of Anglican bishops at the beatification."
Cummins adds, "The streets were lined with people. They still have a very positive memory of him, even after all these years. They're very proud that he was one of them, and they were very flattered that the Pope came. It was a big deal."
It was a four-day love-fest of welcoming speeches by the Lord Mayor, prayers, scholarly seminars, receptions, and a performance of Edward Elgar's "Dream of Gerontius" (inspired by a famous Newman poem of the same name), performed in the same concert hall where it had its first performance 100 years ago.
But, ironically, they never made it to the beatification ceremony itself. On the morning of the ceremony it started raining cats and dogs, and Crespin suddenly suffered an excruciating flare-up of gout. So, rather than facing the prospect of standing for four hours or more in the rain, Cummins sensibly suggested they watch on TV in their hotel room, instead.
"It turned out to be the right decision," he says. "The Pope speaks with a heavy German accent; and with outdoor speakers and the rain, we would have missed most of what he had to say. This way, we got to hear every word."
Besides, as even non-Catholics like me know, the point of any pilgrimage isn't the destination, it's the journey. And the real journey is the journey inward.