1.10.2011

a kinder, gentler huck finn and the sound of samuel clemens spinning in his grave

I suppose you've heard that there is a new, bowdlerized edition of Mark Twain's classic novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Alan Gribben, an editor with the temerity to call himself "a Twain scholar" - although Judas or Jack the Ripper might be more appropriate - has removed every instance of the words "nigger" and "Injun," and replaced them with the word "slave".

I find this anti-intellectual wallpapering sad and discouraging beyond measure. As if purging a classic of an offensive word will somehow reduce the incidence of racism in the world. As if anyone has the moral right to rewrite an author's - any author's - work!

I don't have time to write about this as fully as I'd like right now, but will expand on it at a (much) later date. For now, a few other good pieces can stand in for me.

From a discussion in The Atlantic, Jamelle Bouie:
Taking the History Out of 'Huck Finn'

. . . Maybe I spend too much time in the political blogosphere, but this reminds me of Rich Lowry's most recent column for the National Review, where he channels his preschool self to brag about America's complete and undiminished greatness. The similarity comes in the mutual urge to purge the ugliness from American history. Jim Crow and neo-slavery makes Lowry uncomfortable, so he glosses over it as he spells out America's unadulterated raditude. Likewise, "nigger" makes people feel bad, so it must go, according to NewSouth and Alan Gribben.

But erasing "nigger" from Huckleberry Finn — or ignoring our failures — doesn't change anything. It doesn't provide racial enlightenment, or justice, and it won't shield anyone from the legacy of slavery and racial discrimination. All it does is feed the American aversion to history and reflection. Which is a shame. If there's anything great about this country, it's in our ability to account for and overcome our mistakes. Peddling whitewashed ignorance diminishes America as much as it does our intellect.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, also in The Atlantic, responds:
I'm obviously not Mark Twain, but having written a book, I can only imagine how hard Twain worked. I would be incensed if someone went through my book and took out all the "niggers" or "bitches" or "motherfuckers." It's really just a hair short of some stranger, in their preening ignorance, putting their hands on your kid.

To me that's the worst part; surely we are, as Jamelle says, peddling whitewashed ignorance, but much worse we're actually peddling it at Twain's expense. I think the worse part of censoring Twain, is that it's a shocking act of disrespect toward the writer, executed by people who claim to hold up his legacy.

I am remembered to the historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor, who aptly noted that when people whitewash Robert E. Lee, and claim he was anti-slavery, what they are implicitly claiming is that the actual Robert E. Lee — one of the greatest generals of the past two centuries — isn't good enough.

This is actually much worse, because the invocation of nigger by Twain is not a moral failing. But because of our needs, Twain isn't good enough. Because we can't handle the story of who we were, and evidently who we are, Twain must be summoned up from the dead and, all against himself, submitted before the edits of amateurs. This is our system of fast-food education laid bare: Children are roaming the halls singing "Sexy Bitch," while their neo-Confederate parents are plotting to chop the penis off Michelangelo's David, and clamoring for Gatsby and Daisy to be reunited.

Let us all live in a world of warm snugglies. Let the air-conditioning anesthesia sprawl free. May the flowers of happiness multiply out. May Mark Twain's ghost haunt us all.

Globe and Mail:
To delete the word “nigger” from its 200-plus appearances in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, and replace it with “slave,” is to evade the problem of education. It is to falsify a world as a precondition for teaching about it.

. . . .

The problem of education is to teach impressionable and sensitive young people about a sometimes harsh world. The world as it is, in other words. And very much the world of Huck Finn.

That world is rendered in Huck’s vernacular that has preserved, for all times, the inner truth of the antebellum South. “Nigger,” used so frequently, reveals a reflexive, unthinking degradation of black people. In counterpoint is Huck’s own slow-emerging recognition that Jim is a human being worthy of respect. Huck is a creature of his time and place. His transformation is the subversive moral core of the book. If he spoke like a civil-rights activist, the essence would be lost.

Words wound, words enlighten. Satire often features a kind of bravura cruelty. It doesn’t flinch from exposing how stupid and horrible people can be. (People are exceptionally stupid and horrible in Huck Finn.) Readers do flinch; and so they should, if the satire is sharp enough.

Huck Finn is just that sharp, and touches on the sorest spot in United States life: race. “It is a book that puts on the table the very questions the culture so often tries to bury, a book that opens out into the complex history that shaped it,” an English professor in Texas wrote. Are high school teachers up to the challenge? If not, it makes more sense to strengthen them than to weaken the book.

To tame Huck Finn, to soften its voice, does no favours to young people.

Robert Hirst, the curator of the Mark Twain Project at the University of California, Berkeley, via Gothamist:
When Pat Finn, in his drunken tirade about meeting a “nigger” who could vote and was educated, the whole strength of that depends on feeling how bigoted Pat Finn is. If you soften his words, you’re not helping the point. I teach Twain once a year and I tell my students, I’m not going to euphemize this word. I’m not going to say N-word. You’ve totally destroyed the music of it and the point of it. [Twain] is well aware of the uneasiness this would cause. He lets Huck use this word exclusively. The uniformity of it shows you that he doesn’t want the pressure to be let up.

Gothamist himself announces an even newer edition: The Hipster Huck Finn, in which satirist Richard Grayson writes "an edition of Huck Finn that New Yorkers from Bushwick to the Lower East Side can all enjoy". Gothamist predicts a future edition which will "replace the word 'devil' with 'Wal-Mart'."

But the appearance of this book leaves me in little mood for joking.

20 comments:

laura k said...

But the appearance of this book leaves me in little mood for joking.

Little mood for debate, too.

allan said...

Hey, everybody, it's wmtc Jeopardy!

I'll take "Totally Summing Up A Huge, Complex, and Multi-Faceted Issue In Only Five Words" for $1,000, Alex.

aversion to history and reflection

What is "Why is the US snowballing down the hill to Shitsville at an alarming rate of speed"?

Correct! Continue.

Cool Hand Luke said...

A classic example of what's going wrong south of us.

Amy said...

This made me cringe and want to vomit. Shall we go back and sanitize all of literature? Doesn't literature give us a window into other times, other worlds, with all their ugliness and flaws? Perhaps we should just translate all literature into today's jargon while we are at it.

laura k said...

A classic example of what's going wrong south of us.

Juxtapose this with the recent assassination attempt of a Congressperson, the two ongoing wars, throw in a number for homelessness and poverty, and you have a pretty clear picture.

laura k said...

Amy, I thought of you, and someone on your people-in-history list.

Maybe someone can edit a certain diary. The Frank family can be people who just liked living in really small spaces. The SS can be searching for "people of the Hebrew persuasion".

laura k said...

Juxtapose this with the recent assassination attempt of a Congressperson, the two ongoing wars, throw in a number for homelessness and poverty, and you have a pretty clear picture.

That was meant to be much shorter and more clever, but I kept thinking of more stuff to throw in.

Seeker said...

You gotta be kidding about Lee.

Lee not only lost the war for the South, (See Shelby Foote), he was nothing like the myth that the South has spent 150 years building.

Foote said (paraphrashing) "Losing Gettysburg (and therefore the war) was the price the South paid for having Lee in charge."

The South has frantically, systematically HAD to build Lee up. And he needed a lot of building up.

For example, not only did he lose Gettysburg by easily the dumbest tatics in the war, he regularly got his "true believer" soldiers killed off. And there wasn't anyone to take their place.

Again and again-- and again -- Lee's generals told him NOT to send thousands of men over 1.3 miles of open ground against well armed, well trained men. As if anyone had to be told this to begin with!

Still, idiotically, maniacly, Lee did it anyway. Why? Lee thought God was blessing whatever he did. Lee thought he was magic. God wasn't blessing what he did, and Lee wasn't magic.

Lee was also a personal coward, another thing that gets no press, but is absolutely true.

See the book " Reading the Man" and read it closely -- also see this blog.

http://leepapers.blogspot.com/

Kev said...

Maybe we should make like Granger and his cohorts and start memorizing our favourite books before the Captain Beattys of this world light their bonfires

laura k said...

You gotta be kidding about Lee.

No, you gotta be kidding. That is a quote. Go talk to the person who said it. 'Tweren't me.

johngoldfine said...

Randall Kennedy really has the last word on the word in his 'Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word.'

An interesting take on rewriting HF is John Seelye's 'True Adventures of HF,' which I confess I've always liked.

People who want to bowdlerize the book...think that there's somehow still something left after they're done their scrubbing. They think books exist for plots and themes and other things that students can write calm, polite essays about and take multiple choice tests over.

laura k said...

People who want to bowdlerize the book...think that there's somehow still something left after they're done their scrubbing.

Exactly. Like the Saturday morning cartoon version is the same as the novel. Same story, right? So what's the problem?

My gut reaction, over and over, is How dare he?? How fucking dare he??

Lorraine said...

The Richard Grayson?? The Gothamite?

johngoldfine said...

They think books exist for plots and themes and other things that students can write calm, polite essays about and take multiple choice tests over.

And because the bowdlerizers think books are mere sodoku, brain-teezers, word-find puzzles, they trivialize reading, literature, art, culture, history and, having trivialized those things, then see them as a dispensable academic frill or an official handmaiden to one sort of agitprop or another.

James said...

The webcomic Chainsawsuit takes this idea to its logical conclusion.

James said...

Tom the Dancing Bug weighs in.

allan said...

amusing comments, too!

laura k said...

Callin' someone a dancing bug seems a little derogatory. Perhaps he should be Tom the Vigorous Insect.

LOL!

Thanks, James. Great stuff.

laura k said...

Another good comment from TtDB thread:

Now that we have a Nanny State version of Huck Finn, how about the Conservapedia version? Twain's heretical religious views can be "corrected," we can add in references to the second amendment, and Huck can protest at an abortion clinic.

allan said...

Roger Ebert, January 7, 2011:
"Anyone offended by the use of that word the way it is used in Huckleberry Finn cannot read and possibly cannot think. ... The argument is often put forward that a young reader might be traumatized by finding a word in a 19th century novel that he hears a hundred times a day. If I were that young reader, I would be more disturbed by the notion that I was incapable of learning how and why it was used."