What Mark Twain Meant To Say Was …

From EW.com’s Shelf Life:

What is a word worth? According to Publishers Weekly, NewSouth Books’ upcoming edition of Mark Twain’s seminal novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn will remove all instances of the “n” word—I’ll give you a hint, it’s not nonesuch—present in the text and replace it with slave. The new book will also remove usage of the word Injun.

The effort is spearheaded by Twain expert Alan Gribben, who says his PC-ified version is not an attempt to neuter the classic but rather to update it. “Race matters in these books,” Gribben told PW. “It’s a matter of how you express that in the 21st century.”

OK, knee-jerk reaction — No. No. No. No.

Slightly longer knee-jerk reaction — History is messy. Trying to hide that is doing a great disservice to both history and ourselves. People didn’t always believe the things we believe. They didn’t do the things we do. They didn’t think the way we think. They didn’t say the things we say. Any attempt to clean history up and make it look or sound like today is to deny the way things really were, and thereby to deny a part of human nature. We may not be proud of slavery and segregation and forced relocation and the like, but they did happen. Racism existed in the past, and exists today. To cover that up in order to avoid offending modern polite sensibilities is to, in a way, support it. Things we deem immoral should be confronted, not ignored.

The article’s argument that “if this puts the book into the hands of kids who would not otherwise be allowed to read it due to forces beyond their control (overprotective parents and the school boards they frighten), then maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to judge” carries no weight with me. Because we’re not putting the book in their hands, we’re putting what we want the book to be in their hands. And that, in a very real way, is lying to them, about history, about culture, about society, about human nature.

But …

The same argument that I used earlier to oppose the change could just as easily support it. People didn’t always believe the things we believe. They didn’t do the things we do. They didn’t think the way we think. They didn’t say the things we say. And, therefore, we have to be very careful treating the fruits of the past as if they were created today. The Bible is continually updated because language usage changes, and modernization of the language makes it easier to understand what the text means. On the other hand, we still read Shakespeare, written in English contemporaneous with the King James Bible, in the original versions because we deem the integrity of the text to be of greater importance than easy accessibility. Which do we believe is more important with Twain?

Also, I see two different issues with the racist language in Huckleberry Finn. Arguably, the words were just as demeaning then as they are now; their intent then as today was to dehumanize, to disparage. So leaving them intact captures that spirit. On the other hand, the words were far more normative then than they are now. A white person using those terms today would be the exception; their use would indicate a relatively rare racism in modern times. They would be defiant of the prevailing culture.In Huckleberry Finn, their use is consistent with the prevailing culture. If a modern reader sees those words and judges the characters as being exceptional, they’re misunderstanding the intent. Given that, you could make the argument that, issues of offensiveness aside, a “modern translation” would make the text more easily appreciated by today’s readers.

I’ll be honest, all that aside, I’m not ready to embrace or endorse the changes. The issues of textual integrity versus accessibility are interesting, but I find myself ultimately taking off my writer hat and viewing the question from a sociological standpoint. I want readers to be challenged. I want the book to drive home the fact that society has changed, and thus that society does change. That norms can’t be taken for granted. That social attitudes — about everything — are ephemeral.

But then — I wonder what future readers will think about today’s society when they read the changes in the NewSouth edition of Huckleberry Finn?

One Response

  1. I had no idea they were doing this to Huck Finn…and I think I agree with you. I can see the reasoning behind both arguments, but if I must choose a position, I definitely lean toward keeping it the way it always has been.

    It’s a great tool to make that part of US History come alive, and become real to my kids. A great book to use as a discussion-starter about racism, US History, and slavery.

    It only makes sense to me to let my kids see how common this kind of attitude/language used to be.

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