Thursday, January 06, 2011

Warning.... Offensive Language Inside

Huckleberry Finn – The NewSouth Edition

I was at lunch the other day when the topic of the NewSouth Edition of Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn came up. Being surrounded by people who share my love of books and literature, we all shared the same bit of outrage over the idea of an editor and publisher coming along and sanitizing a work of art that has stood as the quintessential American novel for over a century. Huckleberry Finn is part of the fabric of our culture, for better or worse.

The heart of the controversy is, of course, the use of the word nigger in the text as it refers to the character of Jim. The NewSouth edition removes this word and replaces it with a word that the editor, Dr. Alan Gribben, feels conveys the same meaning, without the negative connotations. It also cleans up the word Injun so that "both novels can be enjoyed deeply and authentically without those continual encounters with the hundreds of now-indefensible racial slurs."

My immediate reaction was disgust. Then I took a step back and reflected on what this all means, which to be honest isn’t that much.... No one reads Huck in classes anymore, and the language has changed so much over time that it has become a difficult read for younger kids, so the only thing this really affects is a college student. So upon reflection, how do I feel about the whole thing?

I have two words for Dr. Gribben and his ilk: fuck you. I know that Dr. Gribben will never read these words and that using a profanity is likely to have my opinion discounted, but the sentiment is real. Words matter, that the intent of an author, especially one like Twain, is reflected in the words they choose to use. Twain used nigger (critics like to cite the fact that it is used 219 times in the novel, when you count the table of contents) for a reason. If you don’t like it, then don’t read it. It is very simple. If the book is assigned as part of a college curriculum, then guess what buttercup? You need to man up and read the book. What you will learn is that you should be offended by what you learn in college; you should be challenged to question your beliefs, whether they are religious, social, or historical.

The general perception of this new edition is mixed, but two writers from the Washington Post seemed to sum it up best for me. Alexandra Petri wrote:

The word is terrible. But it's a linchpin of this book. What makes The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn so radical is the fact that in a time when the horror of slavery was still fresh and the specter of inequality hung over the whole country, Mark Twain was still able to use satire to show how wrong it was.

Huckleberry Finn is uniquely marvelous because it is of its time yet manages to transcend it. In spite of the limitations of vocabulary, cultural expectations, and racial stereotypes, it lays bare the inhumanity of slavery through the power of satire. To remove it from this context is to strip it of its power -- and to needlessly whitewash a period that deserves no whitewashing.

There is nothing quite parallel to this sort of change. It's not about avoiding an awkward classroom moment, or they would have removed the word "ejaculate" from Victorian novels, where everybody is always ejaculating about everything.

Jonathon Capeheart picks up from there with this:

It's that awkward classroom moment that I want to zero in on. As the only black kid in class, I know all about those awkward moments. Reading aloud and hearing passages in history books about slavery or in literature about the disparaging views and treatment of blacks the awkwardness for me would range from embarrassing to painful. Each utterance of the N-word or some other derogatory term (say, coon or darkie or Sambo), even in context, was like a kick to the groin that hurt worse than that time in the fifth grade when I got a little too cute on the balance beam after school.

But I wouldn't trade that pain for a cleaned-up version of history in order to make me or anyone else feel better. Maybe it's the journalist in me, but I prefer the unvarnished truth to one sanitized for my protection.

Great art does not exist to make us feel better.... it exists to teach us something about ourselves, so when we go around putting fig leaves on statues or editing out words we don’t like out of books, we aren’t hurting the works so much as we are hurting our chances of learning from our past, both positively and negatively, and for that I sincerely hope Dr. Gibben and company apologize.


EBV said...

Offensive language? Hooray!

On a serious note, I love your editorial and agree with it whole-heartedly. Makes me think of a Dee Snider interview I saw where he was explaining why he was adamantly against censorship on records. I don't know the direct quote, but he made the point that the a censored tag on a record is just the beginning. After a while, artists will have to choose between saying what they feel the need to say and making a "clean" record. And sure enough a few years later retailers are selling "clean" version of records with the questionable material either bleeped or completely edited out. Have you ever listened to a "clean" record? It would be comical if it weren't so ridiculous.

I read an editorial saying the NewSouth editions give parents and teachers options. That it can now be presented in class. And I'm sure the story will still be good, but what's the point? Who are we to decide what should and shouldn't be part of their work?

Homer said...

Clean records? Why? I actually purchased a clean version of a Lamb of God disc once.... I missed out on the profanity, it probably would have made me enjoy the disc more (it wasn't that good....)

I was a bit nervous to include the offending word in the blog, but reading everyone write about how the N-word was being edited out was ironic and irritating.

Sheri_Beri said...

I hated history in high school. When I got to college I had a history professor that explained things to me and gave you the real information about what it was like to live in the times he was discussing. I felt the honesty of it and it really makes you stop and think and understand how far we've come as a society.

It's ridiculous that they want to edit books that were published long ago because they don't like a word or two in it. If you don't like it, really don't read it.