Everyone has been talking about the treatment of a certain offensive word in Huckleberry Finn

I hesitate to use it here because I worry about what sort of traffic it might drive to my blog.  My politics are decidedly liberal.  I have no wish to appear in the search result of someone hateful. 

I hesitate even to write about it.  I have not lived with this word in the way a person of color in America lives with it.  To claim so much as an opinion about it feels presumptuous. 


As a writer and as a reader I feel I have some right to consider it.  I think of books, other than Huckleberry Finn, that reference things which offend or which disturb.  The Reader comes to mind, with its very sympathetic tale of an ex-Nazi and her boy lover in post-war Germany.  Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  I am currently reading Elizabeth George’s This Body of Death; she is an extraordinarily talented novelist, but her retelling, detail by excrutiating detail, of the real murder of three year old Jamie Bulger in Britain is too much for me.   No one speaks of banning these books, or others like them.  It is this word, this one awful word and the guilt it connotes, that puts Twain in the crosshairs time after time.

I have written things other people would likely condemn.  Dark things, ugly things, because darkness and ugliness lay claim to life.  I wrote a poem nearly fifteen years ago called “Light Railing In”, about my daily train ride into the city where I was then working.  I wrote that the light drained from the sky, and the train sank into darkness, as I neared my destination.  It happened that I disliked my job and that I started feeling miserable as I got closer to the skyscraper where my desk waited.  But a reader pointed out to me that the poem could be interpreted as racist, that some would think I was referencing the mostly African-American neighborhood through which the train ran.  I saw that what she said was true, although I am not a racist.  I did not rewrite.  It said what I wanted to say, how I wanted to say it.  I cannot be responsible for misperceptions. 

Europeans recognize an artist’s droit morale, or moral right, to create.  To interfere with the creation is to violate this right.  American copyright laws come close, but do not fully capture, this concept. 

Because I work in words, I believe that no words should be forbidden.  But in truth, I find this hard to reconcile with my belief, equally strong, that individuals should be treated with respect and dignity, regardless of color, race, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, or religion.  There is no getting around the fact that words may become weapons.  In the hands of an evil man a word may become evil. 

I would like to suggest that, in the case of this word, we might beat the weapon into plowshare.  But I am not naive. 

Lawrence Joseph, a lawyer, raises the word like a flag in his poem, “Sand N —.” 

In the house in Detroit
in a room of shadows
when grandma reads her Arabic newspaper
it is difficult for me to follow her
word by word from right to left
and I do not understand
why she smiles about the Jews
who won’t do business in Beirut
“because the Lebanese
are more Jew than Jew,”
or whether to believe her
that if I pray
to the holy card of Our Lady of Lebanon
I will share the miracle.
Lebanon is everywhere
in the house: in the kitchen
of steaming pots, leg of lamb
in the oven, plates of kousa,
hushwee rolled in cabbage,
dishes of olives, tomatoes, onions,
roasted chicken, and sweets;
at the card table in the sunroom
where grandpa teaches me
to wish the dice across the backgammon board
to the number I want;
Lebanon of mountains and sea,
of pine and almond trees,
of cedars in the service
of Solomon, Lebanon
of Babylonians, Phoenicians, Arabs, Turks
and Byzantines, of the one-eyed
monk, saint Maron,
in whose rite I am baptized;
Lebanon of my mother
warning my father not to let
the children hear,
of my brother who hears
and from whose silence
I know there is something
I will never know; Lebanon
of grandpa giving me my first coin
secretly, secretly
holding my face in his hands,
kissing me and promising me
the whole world.
. . . .

You must understand that, to my mind, The Great Gatsby is the finest, most perfect thing ever written.  I know there are different camps on this: the Tolstoy camp, the Hemingway camp, Shakespeare, Faulkner, Hardy, Joyce.  I worship at the altars of these men, too, but they are demigods.  Fitzgerald stands head, shoulders and probably elbows above all of them.

In Gatsby, Fitzgerald marries an extraordinary story with deeply human characters, and brings both to the page with poetry.  Some of the prose makes the back of my throat ache.  Asked to name a favorite line or scene from the book, many people mention the shirt scene, when Daisy Buchanan is moved to tears by Jay Gatsby’s colored silks.  I like that scene, too, but it’s not my favorite.  This is:

We walked through a high hallway into a bright rosy-colored space, fragilely bound into the house by French windows at either end.  The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house.   A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding cake of the ceiling — and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a
shadow on it as wind does on the sea.

The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon.  They were both in white and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house.  I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall.  Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.

The entirety of the novel is contained in that scene: Daisy’s naiveté and cruel romanticism; Tom, powerful enough that his brutality doesn’t matter; and Nick, the bystander.  Even Gatsby achieves mysterious status.  A few paragraphs later we see Daisy gossiping about the butler, and we understand that in Daisy’s world, the unfortunates are to be mocked, possibly pitied, but never taken to be a peer in any sense.  Which brings us to Myrtle and the awful end in which Tom, not Gatsby, is unscathed. 

The law in Gatsby is subtle but there.  Jay Gatsby is supposedly a bootlegger and a friend of a notorious gangster.  We are led to believe that he accumulated his wealth this way, while Daisy and Tom were born to it.  So Jay should be the bad guy, right?  Tom, though, is the serial adulterer and abuser of women.  And Tom is ultimately a murderer because he tells George Wilson that Jay Gatsby had been driving the car that killed Myrtle Wilson.  Even this mechanism of homicide is derisive.  You just know that Tom manipulates poor George, a man who had been determinedly non-violent elsewhere in the book, into killing Jay.  Tom rids himself of the only real threat to his power in a sense by siccing George on Jay.  All of this is allowed to happen because the policemen investigating Myrtle’s death are completely incompetent.  Or perhaps it is just that the Toms and Daisies operate beyond the sphere within which law enforcement has any dominion.

So that’s my take on Gatsby.  Now for the movie. 

There have been several film versions.  One, a silent film, is lost to us.  Maybe it was good.  Another starring Betty Field and Alan Ladd plays like “Public Enemy” or possibly “Double Indemnity.”   And then the worst, as far as I am concerned, and also the most famous: the 1974 version with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow.  Allow me to don my snark hat for a moment.

Sam Waterston delivers a good performance as Nick.  I can’t accept Bruce Dern as Tom.  I frankly can’t accept Bruce Dern at all, because when I think of him I think of “Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte” and then I want to stop thinking.  Redford was cast for his face and played the role like he knew that and didn’t much care.  And then there is Mia Farrow.  [Sigh.] 

Daisy is a difficult role to play without question.  The actress must be etherially lovely (and if we’re going for authenticity here, a brunette).  Personally I find Farrow’s face skull-like.  Maybe that’s unfair of me, but we cast movies based on looks all the time, and Daisy isn’t supposed to be a constant reminder of the futility of existence.   

Finally, the entire movie seems to have been filmed through cheesecloth.  It’s like watching a Barbara Walters interview.  All soft lighting and sunlit halos.  Fitzgerald was trying the expose the seaminess beneath the polished veneer, not hide it in swirls of linen and tulle. 

So.  The new movie currently in the works will be directed by Baz Luhrmann.  I loved “Strictly Ballroom” and “Moulin Rouge”, but am terrified that he will bring that approach to Gatsby.  Please, by all that is holy, no musical numbers. 

Leonardo DiCaprio has reportedly been cast as Jay, Tobey Maguire as Nick.  Carey Mulligan will play Daisy, a move that outraged many because she is English, but I suspect that this is payback for casting Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones and we should all just keep calm and carry on.  I hope it is not the reason she cut her hair into a Rosemary’s Baby pixie, because if so she picked the wrong way to emulate Mia Farrow. 

Ok.  Snark hat off.  I hope they get it right with this, I really do.  If they do, watching the movie will be like connecting in person with some wonderful friends you have previously only corresponded with.  If they don’t, though, we’ll always have East Egg.