Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Censoring Mark Twain?

The holidays over, and I'm back. Wishing everyone a marvelous 2011. I'm going to be blogging only on Monday, Wednesday and Friday while I work on finishing my next manuscript.

When I turned on my computer this morning, the first thing I saw was this:
According to Publishers Weekly, NewSouth Books plans to release a version of "Huck Finn" that cuts the "n" word and replaces it with "slave." The slur "injun," referring to Native Americans, will also be replaced.
I was outraged by what I immediately saw as censorship in the form of political correctness. How dare anyone change an author's words? Mark Twain was anti-racist. Remember his statement: "There are many humorous things in the world, among them the white man's notion that he is less savage than the other savages." Huckleberry Finn offered both social commentary and a window on a time in history.

I went to Publishers Weekly (PW) where I learned that the change was proposed by Twain scholar Alan Gribben who heads the English Department at Auburn University in Alabama. The article pointed out that:
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."
According to PW, the "n" word appears 219 times in Huck Finn. That took me aback. The idea that schools are banning the book and a comment on Yahoo that it's "awkward being the only black kid in class and having to read it," gave me pause. Gribben himself told PW that, while "teaching and outreach, ... he habitually replaced the word with "slave" when reading aloud."

I called an African-American friend to ask her opinion. She said she has never read the book and would not because of the "n" word.

In the space of about an hour, I went from being furious to thinking that Gribben might actually be right. The original book will still be available to whomever wants to read it.

I checked Twain quotes to see if the man himself had any thoughts on the matter. I think this one might be appropriate: "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."

A lightning bug may actually be what is needed in this case. Lightning runs the risk of destroying the book entirely. If by changing those two words in one edition allows more readers to enjoy the novel, I'm for the change.

7 comments:

B. K. Birch said...

I felt the same way. At first my mind screamed censorship but then I put myself in the shoes of a lone African-American in a classroom where Huck was being discussed.

Honestly, as long as there are unrevised versions available, I'm okay with the edits. And it will bring more readers to this classic piece of literature.

Kaz Augustin said...

I was actually called a wog, a slope, and worse at school. We read texts that disparaged people of different colour. I was usually one of only two Asians in class and of a handful in the entire school. Once I understood the context of a potentially insulting book, it never bothered me. In fact, I often thought it embarrassed my peers more who would be forced to sit there reading a book written by one of Them, disparaging People Like Me.

Yes of course, it never stopped the slurs during recess but then the people who insulted me through school would have done it regardless of what we were reading. As for the others, I hope it made them think a little. So my advice to your AA friend is to grow some thicker skin. This IS censorship and we can't let it pass just because it gives some of us the vapours.

Maya Reynolds said...

Kaz: I'm afraid I'm with B.K. on this. Censorship to me would be removing the book everywhere. This is just another edition of the book, available for those who choose to read it. While students might get this edition in school, they can certainly opt to read the original.

We actually do a form of the same thing when we watch movies edited for network television. I can choose to watch the edited version at home or rent/buy the original version.

I would be far more concerned if the book disappeared from reading lists altogether because of one/two words.

Warm regards,

mar

Mike Keyton said...

Hi Maya,

This is an interesting post. I read the same article. But on this occasion I think I'd disagree with you. I don't think you should ever try to re-write the past, airbrush words or pictures out for reasons deemed good. Those last three words says it all. Being brutally honest, I don't think the N word is as big a problem as the perceived 'difficulty' of the language in general. If Dickens used the N word he'd still be a tough read for many.

Again, if we were to adopt the principle that somethings should be avoided because of possible 'discomfort' in the classroom where do we stop? Why not airbrush the holocaust or indeed slavery from the curriculum. I've taught both to Jewish students and West Indians. No doubt a future homoganised Europe would one day like to re-write history curriculums, airbrushing the petty nationalism's that led to the Hundred Years War, the French wars, and the minor disagreeable blips in a generally peaceful and beneficent Germany.
Okay rant over, but I think this is a 'liberal' door that leads to a very slippery slope. You say The original book will still be available to whomever wants to read it. I have my doubts in a liberal capitalistic world. Books will follow the dollar. There's a whole host of pulp fiction from 1920 to 1950 with the most outrageous sentiments. You can only buy faded copies of these from second hand bookshops. When these are finally exhausted, will the powers that be really think it worth digitising them - even bowdlerised? I'm more frightened of a homogonised world than the unease of teachers causing possible upset because a 'historic' book criticising racism in a racist society uses the odd racist word. You might find the link below interesting. But I'll shut up now :)




http://www.tfa.net/the_freedom_association/2011/01/racial-slurs-edited-out-of-twain-classic-huckleberry-finn.html#tp

Mike Keyton said...

Hi Maya,

This is an interesting post. I read the same article. But on this occasion I think I'd disagree with you. I don't think you should ever try to re-write the past, airbrush words or pictures out for reasons deemed good. Those last three words says it all. Being brutally honest, I don't think the N word is as big a problem as the perceived 'difficulty' of the language in general. If Dickens used the N word he'd still be a tough read for many.

Again, if we were to adopt the principle that somethings should be avoided because of possible 'discomfort' in the classroom where do we stop? Why not airbrush the holocaust or indeed slavery from the curriculum. I've taught both to Jewish students and West Indians. No doubt a future homoganised Europe would one day like to re-write history curriculums, airbrushing the petty nationalism's that led to the Hundred Years War, the French wars, and the minor disagreeable blips in a generally peaceful and beneficent Germany.
Okay rant over, but I think this is a 'liberal' door that leads to a very slippery slope. You say The original book will still be available to whomever wants to read it. I have my doubts in a liberal capitalistic world. Books will follow the dollar. There's a whole host of pulp fiction from 1920 to 1950 with the most outrageous sentiments. You can only buy faded copies of these from second hand bookshops. When these are finally exhausted, will the powers that be really think it worth digitising them - even bowdlerised? I'm more frightened of a homogonised world than the unease of teachers causing possible upset because a 'historic' book criticising racism in a racist society uses the odd racist word. You might find the link below interesting. But I'll shut up now :)




http://www.tfa.net/the_freedom_association/2011/01/racial-slurs-edited-out-of-twain-classic-huckleberry-finn.html#tp

Maya Reynolds said...

Mike: Thanks so much for sounding off.

I appreciate both you and Kaz for your thoughtful comments, but--for me--this comes down to a case of wanting to see the book continue to be read by generations of kids.

Remember the old saw: "If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, does it make a sound?"

The answer was, "No," because without an ear to react, thereby hearing the sound, no sound occurs.

If the book is not used in the classroom, generations of children will not "hear" it.

I am by no means advocating political correctness for PC's sake. I am merely being pragmatic. I would rather children read the book with one or two words changed, than take a purist stance and see the book disappear from schools altogether.

Thanks to both you and Kaz, as always, for your comments.

Maria Zannini said...

I've been wanting to post a comment for days, but this flu just knocked me out.

I have to disagree with respect. Must we always erase what offends us? As a child and a young woman, should I have been protected from damaging sexist remarks and slurs about my Mexican heritage?

That upbringing made me what I am. The world didn't learn to adjust their misconceptions and bigotry by homogenizing or erasing it from the page. They did it because it was out in the open like a fetid wound until they couldn't hide from it anymore.

I was appalled at the move to edit Twain. And I would be angry if someone tried to adjust my work a hundred years from now if it failed to meet the standards of the day.

***
And totally off topic, I'll try to call you tonight. Most of my voice is back.