Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Huckleberry Finn-with-the-n-word-removed controversy

I forgot to link to this earlier -- over at When Falls the Coliseum, I wrote a piece on the controversy over the new edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with "the n-word" replaced by the word "slave." I came up with four different angles on it -- you can read them all here.

The effort in question was the subliterate brainchild of an English professor from Auburn University (lucky students!) and alleged "Twain scholar" named Alan Gribben. From Publisher's Weekly:
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."
I am not sure why a book written in the nineteenth century should be held to 21st century standards of decorum. Most especially a work of high art that devastatingly depicts a time and place in which "the n-word" was used with distressing regularity as one way to dehumanize a group of people.  According to an essay written by Craig Hotchkiss, of the Mark Twain House and Museum:
Twain once said of his most famous work that it: "...is a book of mine in which a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision, and conscience suffers defeat." Here Twain articulates the subtle and ironic intent of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by distinguishing between its depiction of "conscience," which is merely what our society teaches us is right and wrong and which Twain castigates as "deformed" in the case of post-Reconstruction society, and a "sound heart," which refers to the inherent and eternal goodness of human nature.
Twain admitted to once having embraced all the most cherished beliefs about racial difference and black inferiority that gave moral justification to the slavocracy of the antebellum South. He used his story of the boy Huckleberry Finn to illustrate his own epiphany about American racism and to offer a cautionary tale at a time when American society was receding back into the same depravity that had earlier torn the nation apart in the Civil War.
Huckleberry Finn, the character, represents white Americans, and their casually vile view of people of other races. By removing "the n-word," what Gribben is actually doing is sanitizing America's shameful history regarding its treatment of the people who were kidnapped from their homes in Africa and forced into servitude by white Europeans and Americans. He's also lessening the impact of Huckleberry Finn's revelation that his companion Jim is his best friend.

It makes the Gribbens of the world uncomfortable. Great art often does. Back to Publisher's Weekly:
Gribben has no illusions about the new edition's potential for controversy. "I'm hoping that people will welcome this new option, but I suspect that textual purists will be horrified," he said. "Already, one professor told me that he is very disappointed that I was involved in this." Indeed, Twain scholar Thomas Wortham, at UCLA, compared Gribben to Thomas Bowdler (who published expurgated versions of Shakespeare for family reading), telling PW that "a book like Professor Gribben has imagined doesn't challenge children [and their teachers] to ask, ‘Why would a child like Huck use such reprehensible language?' "
Wouldn’t it be nice if we go back and scrub from our history every single thing that makes us uncomfortable about it now? The vast majority of books go out of print and are forgotten, so we don’t have to worry about those. Unfortunately, there are some stubborn ones that simply refuse to die. Those we will apparently now edit so as to make them more palatable. At least, if the Gribbens have their way.

Anyway, as I said, I posted a (mostly funny!) piece about this at When Falls the Coliseum, which you can read by clicking the link in this sentence.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

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]:
http://www.iuniverse.com/Bookstore/BookDetail.aspx?BookId=SKU-000190526

Anonymous said...

Now if we could just clean up Shakespeare a little, we'd be all set.

Etta Devine said...

My response to this was to replace the word 'n-word' with the word 'robot'. http://kck.st/eid5dP Seems like you now have 5 angles...