Showdown At Chicken Bone Beach

Posted: Jul 12, 2001 12:00 AM
Mark Twain once observed that "We all do no end of feeling, and we mistake it for thinking." That's precisely why the muddle-headed movement to ban Twain and his greatest work, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," persists like gangrene. The Left's assault on Twain took a literal turn recently in New Jersey. Last week, the mayor of Atlantic City tore down a fiberglass statue of the 19th-century author that had been erected at the intersection of the Atlantic City Boardwalk and Missouri Avenue. The statue was part of new tourist attraction campaign using replicas of state landmarks and celebrities to decorate each block of the famed Boardwalk. In May, vandals smashed and pummeled Twain's face beyond recognition. "There were some concerns raised about the appropriateness of Mark Twain," Atlantic City Mayor James Whelan explained after deep-sixing the battered statue. "Rather than offend anybody, we decided to put him back in storage." Feelings, nothing more than feelings, did Twain in. Twain's knee-jerk Jersey critics said the Missouri-born icon dishonored the heritage of Chicken Bone Beach, a section of the Jersey shore where blacks were segregated until the 1950s. "It's truly disgraceful that a writer who used the n-word to describe African Americans has taken center stage at Chicken Bone Beach," William Marsh, president of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, told the Atlantic City Press. Ah, yes. The "n-word." Twain used it in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" 215 times, we are ceaselessly reminded by censors who are too busy counting Twain's words to understand them. Ignore the book-burning mob chanting "racism." This novel remains one of the most brilliant and moving anti-slavery tracts ever written. For the increasing number of Americans who have not read the book, here's a brief summary: The novel follows the geographic and moral journey of young Huck Finn, who navigates the Mississippi River on a raft with a runaway slave, Jim. As their friendship deepens through a series of shared misadventures, Huck's eyes are opened to the evils of slavery and racism. The novel climaxes when the boy defies his culture's rampant bigotry and resolves to rescue Jim from his captors. Two gifted black writers, Booker T. Washington and Ralph Ellison, understood Twain's medium and message. Washington wrote that Twain "succeeded in making his readers feel a genuine respect for Jim." In creating Jim's character, the moral center of the book, Washington asserted that Twain had "exhibited his sympathy and interest in the masses of the negro people." Ellison noted similarly that "Huckleberry Finn knew, as did Mark Twain, that Jim was not only a slave but a human being (and) a symbol of humanity ... and in freeing Jim, Huck makes a bid to free himself of the conventionalized evil taken for civilization by the town." Twain opposed racial inequality in many of his works of fiction and non-fiction, and came to reject slavery after moving East, marrying into an abolitionist family, and meeting Frederick Douglass. Twain used the vernacular of the antebellum South in "Huck Finn" not to denigrate black people, but to keep it real. Whitewashing the word "nigger" out of the book's dialogue would have played into the hands of those who prefer to sanitize history than confront it. "You can't just say he was writing how people talk, and overlook what he wrote," the NAACP's William Marsh said last week as he cheered the removal of Twain's statue overlooking Chicken Bone Beach. Yet, that's exactly what the anti-Twain marauders have done. Could Twain ever have imagined such a farcical fate -- banned on bookshelves and now the Boardwalk by literary Neanderthals? Marsh and his ilk could do the world much more good by heeding Twain's timeless advice: "It is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt."