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.