Friday, January 7, 2011

The Expurgated Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

"Censorship is telling a man he can't have a steak just because a baby can't chew it."
- Mark Twain

NewSouth Books of Montgomery, Alabama announced they’re releasing a new edition of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn” in mid-February that will remove the harsh “n-word” and replace it with “slave.” The work will also substitute the word “Indian” for the more colloquial “Injun’”.

According to Dr. Alan Gribben, a Mark Twain scholar who wrote the introduction to the new edition, “The n-word possessed, then as now, demeaning implications more vile than almost any insult that can be applied to other racial groups. There is no equivalent slur in the English language.”

Apparently Dr. Gribben never used the word “cunt” in front of a middle-aged woman.

Gribben notes the “n-word” through the years gained more raw impact to shock and disturb. He writes that Twain’s own personal views on the “peculiar institution” of slavery matched many in his hometown of Hannibal, Missouri. It wasn’t until Twain married a woman from a New York State abolitionist family that his opinion of slavery changed.

“Over the years I have noted valiant and judicious defenses of the prevalence of the n-word in Twain’s Huckleberry Finn as proposed by eminent writers, editors, and scholars.... Apologists quite validly encourage readers to intuit the irony behind Huck’s ignorance and to focus instead on Twain’s larger satiric goals,” Gribben writes.

Those who advocate purging the “n-word” from “Huckleberry Finn” believe doing so makes work accessible to all. They can’t fathom such a jarring, hurtful word repeated with such frequency. Twain used the “n-word” 216 times in the book.

The last time I heard that word bandied around that much I was listening to “Real Nigga Roll Call” by Lil’ Jon and the Eastside Boyz.

Spoiler alert: Antebellum race relations were considerably more backward compared to today. Blacks were viewed as property, to be auctioned off like cattle. They were slaves, manual laborers to be shunned and ridiculed by white society. You know: like Mexicans are now.

Gribben wrote that the esteemed African-American poet Langston Hughes wanted the “n-word” purged from all books, plays and poems because of its hurtful connotations and that black people don’t like seeing that word in any context.

In a similar vein, members of Congress took turns reading the U.S. Constitution on the House floor this week, but a politically correct, sanitized version that omitted those nasty racist parts such as Article 1, Section 2, which counted slaves as three-fifths of all other people.

Instead of using the Constitution to teach Americans that our laws and attitudes toward minorities has evolved over time by pointing out that Section 2 of the 14th Amendment changed the three-fifths apportionment in Article 1, Section 2, Congress just expunged it.

They also didn’t read aloud the 18th Amendment, which made the sale and distribution of alcohol illegal. The 21st Amendment repealed the 18th Amendment and ended the era of bathtub gin and speakeasies. Prohibition was a noble experiment, one that utterly failed. Far from creating a sober, godly nation, it gave a bunch of guys with no necks and wide-brimmed fedoras things to shoot at with Tommyguns.

Here’s the thing: when you start censoring things to appease a certain minority or group, you’re doing a disservice to everyone, even if your intentions for censoring the work are altruistic like not publishing the “n-word” in a novel or purely partisan showmanship like reading a redacted version of the Constitution.

Either way, you lose historical perspective. In sanitizing the work for the overly sensitive 21st Century palate, you’re corrupting its true intent and eliminating its historical significance.

A racial epithet caused many schools to ban “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” from their libraries. Twain’s 1885 novel joins the ranks of other banned books such as “The Catcher in the Rye”, “Of Mice and Men”, and “The Lord of the Flies.” All great books and ones I read in school, proving that the goal of education is to expose children to learning and new ideas, and not to encourage a new vocabulary for potty-mouths.

For “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” it all comes down to that one pesky word.

Unless you’re the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, you don’t like hearing or reading the “n-word”.

I am also guilty of self-censorship here. Like many educated suburban whites, the only reason I use “n-word” and not “nigger” is because I don’t want to get my ass kicked.

Watering down Twain’s masterpiece by replacing “Nigger Jim” with “Slave Jim” is like saying this awful word that defamed and disgraced a race of people never existed. An entire attitude of superiority and subservience is deleted by nixing that word, all to placate modern sensibilities and avoid offending people.

Why stop at “Huckleberry Finn” and the U.S. Constitution? As long as we’re on an Orwellian streak, let’s edit Schindler’s List to omit all references to the holocaust. After all, wasn’t the Nazi attitude towards Jews just as degrading and hurtful as the antebellum attitude towards blacks? How about we edit the Bible to not include all of that violence? Plagues. Famines. Murders. It’s all so disconcerting. How could anyone build a religion around such carnage and chaos?

The people raising the hue and cry for editing Mark Twain’s masterpiece probably have never read the book, just like those in Congress who spit and fume about constitutional rights have never read the Constitution.

Both works depict internal transformations over time.

Tom and Huck hold prejudiced views on slavery similar to those of any rural backwater town along the Mississippi in the 1840s. Yet they eventually conspire to set Jim free after befriending him. To modern readers, Jim appears as slow-witted dullard whose dialog is the precursor to Ebonics, however, he’s the novel’s hero.

The Constitution changes through time, reflecting the ebb and flow of society. In the 18th century, a black man was counted as three-fifths of a white person. In the 19th century, enslaved black men were free and given the right to vote. In the 20th century, blacks could vote without paying poll taxes.

And in the 21st century a black man would eventually be elected president.

In their over-zealous efforts to expurgate and amend, the censors put blinders on a new generation of readers and corrupt the author’s original intent. Sensitivity is not the job of the writer; it is the job of the censor. The writer reveals the rotten truth and holds the wretched core of racism and intolerance towards the light for public scrutiny and opinion. Second-guessing and timidity over fears such language would provoke outrage only quells expression.

The rollicking journey of two boys and a slave written by a well-loved American literary genius and legislation that reflects the country’s progress through time, should both be embraced and given clarity, not muddled through a distorted modern lens.

Appeasing the masses without confronting the ugly realities of our history will only create a country of milquetoast fantasists and bleeding-heart robots bereft of hindsight or perspective.

1 comment:

Raymonde said...

Thank you! THANK you! Thank YOU!
This is part of an unpublished paper I've writtnn on Bible reading

My mission here is to discuss what is needed, as I have already hinted at, in allowing oneself to be immersed in reading the Biblical Text for what it is; a Poetical statement enshrining the ideology and wisdom of Ancient Israel. To fully engage that Drama we must allow the text to speak on its own terms, not ours. We would not set ourselves the task or removing offending scenes, alliterations or allusions to offensive topics from William Shakespeare, Henry James, John Milton or Charles Dickens and demand of them that they present their works at our literary plate and table with the attendant niceties of properly folded napkins in our prescribed manner as though the whole situation were one of proper tea etiquette. We accept the literary work from them with all of what may be ill mannered and offensive in the hopes that our roughshod guests may have something of great or small import for us even if it only lifts our sour faces from our daily drudge for a moment. Why would we ask the Biblical writers to do any different?