The idea of the “fully human” (or: Get your revisionist hands off my history)

Being impressed with Melville’s great capacity for humanizing the “foreign” in Moby-Dick, and nevertheless recognizing where he falls short, reminds me of this article by Adam Kirsch — on a book publisher sanitizing Mark Twain, Congress omitting passages from a reading of the Constitution, and the importance of leaving history unvarnished:

“Huckleberry Finn” was intended, of course, as an attack on racism. In its most famous scene, Huck hides the runaway slave Jim from a party of slave-hunters, and then feels guilty for having done so. “I knowed very well I had done wrong,” he says, though the reader, and Twain, know he has done right. It’s a searching demonstration of the way conscience is not just innate but also learned, and how confusing it can be to do right in a society dedicated to wrong — the same kinds of questions that bedeviled Hannah Arendt at the Eichmann trial.

Yet all those racial epithets are a reminder that, when Twain wrote it, the audience he had in mind — the America for which he wrote — was segregated. He did not worry about constantly writing “nigger,” because he was writing about blacks, not for them. And for many readers, encountering classic literature means sometimes finding yourself excluded, or insulted, in this way. For blacks reading Twain, certainly, but also for Jews reading Shakespeare or Dickens, and for women reading, say, Plato (among countless others).

But the books we cherish, which deserve the name of classics, feel essentially humane to us, despite their limitations, even their bigotry. “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not,” W. E. B. DuBois said. We feel that the exclusion of whole classes of humanity from the author’s imagined audience — which means, from his idea of the fully human — is due to ignorance or carelessness; that if he were to think and feel more freely, more deeply, he would acknowledge that all people are equally human.

This is also the promise of American history, and above all of the Constitution. Unlike Twain’s novel, that classic American text was written in the expectation that it would be corrected. And it needed correction, or amendment, for the same essential reason: the framers’ imagination of the people they led was not full enough. It took a devastating civil war, whose sesquicentennial we are now observing, to revise the Constitution in the direction of justice. When the House readers decided to skip the parts of the Constitution that reveal its original limitations, they were minimizing that history, pretending that our founding document was flawless from the beginning.

The Daily Show — as ever, funny as hell — nails it.


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