Paging Chris Rock…

Marc Schultz at Publishers Weekly:

Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a classic by most any measure—T.S. Eliot called it a masterpiece, and Ernest Hemingway pronounced it the source of “all modern American literature.” Yet, for decades, it has been disappearing from grade school curricula across the country, relegated to optional reading lists, or banned outright, appearing again and again on lists of the nation’s most challenged books, and all for its repeated use of a single, singularly offensive word: “nigger.”

Twain himself defined a “classic” as “a book which people praise and don’t read.” Rather than see Twain’s most important work succumb to that fate, Twain scholar Alan Gribben and NewSouth Books plan to release a version of Huckleberry Finn, in a single volume with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, that does away with the “n” word (as well as the “in” word, “Injun”) by replacing it with the word “slave.”

“This is not an effort to render Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn colorblind,” said Gribben, speaking from his office at Auburn University at Montgomery, where he’s spent most of the past 20 years heading the English department. “Race matters in these books. It’s a matter of how you express that in the 21st century.”

The idea of a more politically correct Finn came to the 69-year-old English professor over years of teaching and outreach, during which he habitually replaced the word with “slave” when reading aloud. Gribben grew up without ever hearing the “n” word (“My mother said it’s only useful to identify [those who use it as] the wrong kind of people”) and became increasingly aware of its jarring effect as he moved South and started a family. “My daughter went to a magnet school and one of her best friends was an African-American girl. She loathed the book, could barely read it.”

Keith Staskiewicz at Daily Caller:

Unsurprisingly, there are already those who are yelling “Censorship!” as well as others with thesauruses yelling “Bowdlerization!” and “Comstockery!” Their position is understandable: Twain’s book has been one of the most often misunderstood novels of all time, continuously being accused of perpetuating the prejudiced attitudes it is criticizing, and it’s a little disheartening to see a cave-in to those who would ban a book simply because it requires context.

Jack Turner at Jack and Jill:

My immediate reaction was  that this is taking the easy way out, is ignoring the truth of the history of language at the time and is diluting a piece of great literature from one of America’s greatest commenters. How are people to discuss the history of language and dehumanization and racism inherent in it if you replace “nigger” and “injun” both with the generic “slave?” However, I also believe that Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer have value far beyond their use of the word “nigger,” and if that word is preventing a generation from accessing something other than Snooki’s new novel, then I understand the motivation to create a more “accessible” version for young readers who might perhaps graduate to untampered versions later in life.

Jonathan Turley:

Replacing this word with “slave” can change the meaning and certainly the intent of Twain. Consider the following line:

“Oh, yes, this is a wonderful govment, wonderful. Why, looky here. There was a free nigger slave there from Ohio – a mulatter, most as white as a white man. He had the whitest shirt on you ever see…

The difference may be subtle but Twain clearly could have used slave. The word existed at the time. Twain chose the n-word to convey something beyond captive status. It was a word used widely. It is still used in literary works to say something about the people who use it.

Other authors like William Faulkner used this word in capturing the culture of the South. Consider the following passage from Go Down, Moses (1940):

This delta, he thought: This Delta. This land which man has deswamped and denuded and derivered in two generations so that white men can own plantations and commute every night to Memphis and black men own plantations and ride in jim crow cars to Chicago to live in millionaires’ mansions on Lakeshore Drive, where white men rent farms and live like niggers and niggers crop on shares and live like animals, where cotton is planted and grows man-tall in the very cracks of the sidewalks, and ursury and mortgage and bankcruptcy and measureless wealth, Chinese and African and Aryan and Jew, all breed and spawn together until no man has time to say which is which nor cares…. No wonder the ruined woods I used to know don’t cry for retribution! He thought: The people who have destroyed it will accomplish its revenge.

Would we rewrite Faulkner as well? How about all of the modern movies and books using this term as part of modern urban speech? Authors write to capture characters who are often racist or living in racist times. This publisher may billed itself as the “NewSouth” but this book was written about the Old South. To sanitize history or literature is an act of violence against the artistic work of these authors.

I find the editing of a great literary work to be nothing short of shameful and shocking, but views can differ on such a question. I would be interested in the views of others on the blog.

Doug Mataconis:

One writer at CNN compares the modifications to the changes that broadcast television networks make when the air movies:

If this puts the book into the hands of kids who would not otherwise be allowed to read it due to forces beyond their control (overprotective parents and the school boards they frighten), then maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to judge.

It’s unfortunate, but is it really any more catastrophic than a TBS-friendly re-edit of “The Godfather,” you down-and-dirty melon farmer?

The original product is changed for the benefit of those who, for one reason or another, are not mature enough to handle it, but as long as it doesn’t affect the original, is there a problem?

This analogy simply doesn’t work. Neither the expletives nor things like the graphic details of the “horses head” scene or the brief sex scene between Michael Corleone and his first wife Appolonia are essential elements of the story that Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola are trying to tell in The Godfather. These items can be removed or modified for airing on broadcast television without taking away from the central themes of the story. This is not the case with either Sawyer or Finn, both books are set in a time period when racial tensions were a central part of life and are based, to a large degree, on the racially prejudices that Twain himself encountered as a child growing up in Missouri. This is especially true of Huckleberry Finn where, despite the fact that “the n-word” appears 219 times, it’s fairly obvious that Twain is condemning racial prejudice and that one of the central themes of the book is the process by which Huck discovers that the things he’d been taught by society by blacks were wrong, and that his companion him was, in fact, an heroic figure.Twain’s use of a word that, even in his time, was meant to be insulting and demeaning, was deliberate and removing it because of “sensitivities” seems to me to detract significantly from the overall power of the novel.

Beyond this, editing these novels like this strikes me as being the literary equivalent of putting a shroud around the waist of Michealangelo’s David, or covering the breasts of a woman in a Rubens painting. These are great works of art, changing them like this is troublesome and outrageous on a fundamental level.

Kevin Drum:

I think I’d agree with Doug in nearly every other case. But the problem with Huckleberry Finn is that, like it or not, most high school teachers only have two choices these days: teach a bowdlerized version or don’t teach it at all. It’s simply no longer possible to assign a book to American high school kids that assaults them with the word nigger so relentlessly. As Twain scholar Alan Gribben, who led the bowdlerization effort, explained, “After a number of talks, I was sought out by local teachers, and to a person they said we would love to teach [Tom Sawyer] and Huckleberry Finn, but we feel we can’t do it anymore. In the new classroom, it’s really not acceptable.”

Given that choice, I guess I’d bowdlerize. After all, the original text will remain available, and teachers can explain the wording change to their classes if they want to. (Though even that’s probably difficult.) And frankly, I doubt that the power of the novel is compromised all that much for 17-year-olds by doing this. In fact, given the difference in the level of offensiveness of the word nigger in 2010 vs. 1884, it’s entirely possible that in 2010 the bowdlerized version more closely resembles the intended emotional impact of the book than the original version does. Twain may have meant to shock, but I don’t think he ever intended for the word to completely swamp the reader’s emotional reaction to the book. Today, though, that’s exactly what it does.

In any case, the only realistic alternative is that Huckleberry Finn vanishes from high schools and becomes a book taught solely at the university level. Maybe that’s better. But I doubt it.

Oliver Willis:

Yes, the word “nigger” is offensive as hell. But it’s in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn for a reason, and removing it is really stupid and counterproductive.

You don’t teach people about history by self-censoring it. And Finn is one of the great works of American literature. Rather than run for the hills at the sign of controversy, we ought to be teaching students why the word is used in the book, and what its significance is.

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1 Comment

Filed under Books, Race

One response to “Paging Chris Rock…

  1. Randy Parker

    Love your title for this! For my two cents:

    http://wordnut.com/2011/01/05/tweaking-twain/

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