Friday, January 7, 2011

Ethics Police: Editing Huckleberry Finn

When I heard that Mark Twain's classic novel Huckleberry Finn was being edited to remove two non-PC words--"nigger" and "injun"--I was somewhat livid. I kept myself away from blogging yesterday I was so upset, knowing I would probably just rant and rave about it if I tried to put figurative pen to paper.

But today, my head is a little clearer, though my heart is still distressed by the news. And I'm not the only one. The New York Times published a lengthy piece yesterday slamming the new edition, and I'd never have guessed I'd agree so wholeheartedly with Michiko Kakutani:

“All modern American literature,” Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ ”

Being an iconic classic, however, hasn’t protected “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” from being banned, bowdlerized and bleeped. It hasn’t protected the novel from being cleaned up, updated and “improved.”

A new effort to sanitize “Huckleberry Finn” comes from Alan Gribben, a professor of English at Auburn University, at Montgomery, Ala., who has produced a new edition of Twain’s novel that replaces the word “nigger” with “slave.” Nigger, which appears in the book more than 200 times, was a common racial epithet in the antebellum South, used by Twain as part of his characters’ vernacular speech and as a reflection of mid-19th-century social attitudes along the Mississippi River.

Mr. Gribben has said he worried that the N-word had resulted in the novel falling off reading lists, and that he thought his edition would be welcomed by schoolteachers and university instructors who wanted to spare “the reader from a racial slur that never seems to lose its vitriol.” Never mind that today nigger is used by many rappers, who have reclaimed the word from its ugly past. Never mind that attaching the epithet slave to the character Jim — who has run away in a bid for freedom — effectively labels him as property, as the very thing he is trying to escape.

Controversies over “Huckleberry Finn” occur with predictable regularity. In 2009, just before Barack Obama’s inauguration, a high school teacher named John Foley wrote a guest column in The Seattle Post-Intelligencer in which he asserted that “Huckleberry Finn,” “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Of Mice and Men,” don’t belong on the curriculum anymore. “The time has arrived to update the literature we use in high school classrooms,” he wrote. “Barack Obama is president-elect of the United States, and novels that use the ‘N-word’ repeatedly need to go.”

Haven’t we learned by now that removing books from the curriculum just deprives children of exposure to classic works of literature? Worse, it relieves teachers of the fundamental responsibility of putting such books in context — of helping students understand that “Huckleberry Finn” actually stands as a powerful indictment of slavery (with Nigger Jim its most noble character), of using its contested language as an opportunity to explore the painful complexities of race relations in this country. To censor or redact books on school reading lists is a form of denial: shutting the door on harsh historical realities — whitewashing them or pretending they do not exist.

Mr. Gribben’s effort to update “Huckleberry Finn” (published in an edition with “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” by NewSouth Books), like Mr. Foley’s assertion that it’s an old book and “we’re ready for new,” ratifies the narcissistic contemporary belief that art should be inoffensive and accessible; that books, plays and poetry from other times and places should somehow be made to conform to today’s democratic ideals. It’s like the politically correct efforts in the ’80s to exile great authors like Conrad and Melville from the canon because their work does not feature enough women or projects colonialist attitudes.

Authors’ original texts should be sacrosanct intellectual property, whether a book is a classic or not. Tampering with a writer’s words underscores both editors’ extraordinary hubris and a cavalier attitude embraced by more and more people in this day of mash-ups, sampling and digital books — the attitude that all texts are fungible, that readers are entitled to alter as they please, that the very idea of authorship is old-fashioned.

Efforts to sanitize classic literature have a long, undistinguished history. Everything from Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” to Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” have been challenged or have suffered at the hands of uptight editors. There have even been purified versions of the Bible (all that sex and violence!). Sometimes the urge to expurgate (if not outright ban) comes from the right, evangelicals and conservatives, worried about blasphemy, profane language and sexual innuendo. Fundamentalist groups, for instance, have tried to have dictionaries banned because of definitions offered for words like hot, tail, ball and nuts.

In other cases the drive to sanitize comes from the left, eager to impose its own multicultural, feminist worldviews and worried about offending religious or ethnic groups. Michael Radford’s 2004 film version of “The Merchant of Venice” (starring Al Pacino) revised the play to elide potentially offensive material, serving up a nicer, more sympathetic Shylock and blunting tough questions about anti-Semitism. More absurdly, a British theater company in 2002 changed the title of its production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” to “The Bellringer of Notre Dame.”

Whether it comes from conservatives or liberals, there is a patronizing Big Brother aspect to these literary fumigations. We, the censors, need to protect you, the na├»ve, delicate reader. We, the editors, need to police writers (even those from other eras), who might have penned something that might be offensive to someone sometime. According to Noel Perrin’s 1969 book, “Dr. Bowdler’s Legacy: A History of Expurgated Books in England and America,” Victorians explained their distaste for the colorful, earthy works of 18th-century writers like Laurence Sterne and Henry Fielding by invoking the principle of “moral progress” and their own ethical superiority: “People in the 18th century, and earlier, didn’t take offense at coarse passages, because they were coarse themselves.”

Read the rest of the article HERE

Kakutani's insights and arguments ring 100 percent true in my ears, and it's baffling to me how people can see it otherwise.

I understand that these words are no longer socially acceptable, but Huck Finn wasn't written yesterday--it was first published in 1884. Back then, it's how things were; it's history. Whether it's something we agree with or not, it's part of America's past, and our past helps us grow and improve as individuals and as a society. Teaching our children about the way things were, remembering the past and learning from it, is the only way to stop it from repeating itself. Some of us--aka me--even have tattoos to that effect. There's a West African Andrika symbol called a Sankofa on my right shoulder blade, representing the importance of learning from the past. It's something I strongly believe in and never want to forget.

I've also got to give Kakutani props for actually using the word "nigger" in her article (*gasp* I just did it too! AGAIN!). Many pieces have been calling it the "N-Word," making me feel like Hermione Granger as she maintains that "Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself" in regard to He-who-must-not-be-named. I may not like the implication behind words like "nigger" and "injun" and even "Voldemort," but using them out of context does not mean I condone their meanings. The whole censorship argument aside (that would take up an entire blog post in itself, if not a series of them!), it's just a word. There's nothing to be afraid of. It might offend people, but it can't really hurt you unless you let it.

But clearly, people are letting it. And as a result, Twain's classic is getting the shit end of the stick, to put it bluntly.


  1. We've published a much cooler version of Huckleberry Finn, one with every occurrence of the N-word replaced by the word "hipster."

  2. Good for you, waiting for the bitterness to settle down before writing something. I don't have that kind of willpower, and I just rant. heh

    Richard - that is the best thing I've seen all day. Downloading it now.

  3. This is all about limiting Free Speech. After all, censorship is everywhere. The gov’t (and their big business cronies) censor free speech, shut down dissent and ban the book “America Deceived II”. Free speech for all, especially Mark Twain.
    Last link (before Google Books bans it also]:

  4. Great post, Danielle! I wholeheartedly agree!

  5. I was sickened when I heard about the sanitized edition of the book....and scared!