February 1, 2011

Removing History in Twain

Print More

This month, NewSouth Books will release a combined volume of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, edited by Twain scholar Alan Gribben, a professor at Auburn University. In Huck Finn alone, Gribben replaced every instance of the “N” word with “slave” — an attempt to render the text more palatable and accessible to a young, contemporary readership. Unsurprisingly, Gribben’s bowdlerization of the text (and it is bowdlerization, not modernization) has spawned much heated discussion.

While the various writings on the matter have not simply straddled two starkly opposing sides, the primary justifications for the censorship of the literary classic fail to see the greater issue. It should not be acceptable to change an artist’s work, to modify a writer’s words. What’s more, every work falls within a historical context; the word has a meaning in Twain’s social context and the meaning is not “slave.” And finally, maybe Huck Finn is not for children — does that mean it should be cleaned up for an audience to whom the work inherently does not cater?

Twain intentionally uses the consciously offensive “N” word in order to emphasize the failure and nonsense of a deeply flawed society. This is the word these characters would use, how they thought of themselves in relation to others.

As quoted by writer Julie Bosman in The New York Times, Gribben stated, “I found my myself … not wanting to pronounce that word when I was teaching either ‘Huckleberry Finn’ or ‘Tom Sawyer.’” He goes on to write, “even at the level of college and graduate school, students are capable of resenting textual encounters with this racial appellative.” Well, yeah. But should literature really be revised in order to protect students’ feelings? This overcautious attitude undermines the opportunity this discomfort presents for discussion and inquiry as to the meaning, both in historical context and our own time, of this problematic slur.

Changing the word effectively revises history. This may make students more comfortable when reading the work aloud, but it will also make students more ignorant. As Dr. Sarah Churchwell, a senior lecturer at the University of East Anglia said, as quoted in the Guardian, “The fault lies with the teaching, not the book. You can’t say I’ll change Dickens so it is compatible with my teaching method.”

Huckleberry Finn is one of the greatest novels ever written, and I don’t mean this hyperbolically. It just is. As such, it should be taught. Emphasis on taught. Huck Finn is a complete work, it isn’t fair or morally acceptable to pick and choose which aspects of the novel are worthwhile — it’s one, crafted, deliberate work. Twain means every word he writes. Famous for saying, “As to the adjective; when in doubt, strike it out,” this is not a writer who takes word choice lightly. With this in mind, rather than making the text easier we should embrace its difficulty and learn. College students may be capable of resentment of such appellations, but we are also capable of complex thought, of suspending our cultural taboos and entertaining the notion of alternate norms and their consequences.

Author Michael Chabon wrote an article in The Atlantic in favor of the revised edition. He writes about reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to his children, ages seven and nine, “I recall that in those fleeting spots where I encountered the word I would substitute, without missing a beat or losing any literal meaning, ‘slave.’ It was no big thing.” He then explains how this became a bigger issue with Huck Finn, a text with a more liberal use of the “N” word, and it merited discussion with his children. Chabon misses the point: His children are simply too young for Huck Finn (which he acknowledges by deeming the language problematic) and he ends up explaining the use of the “N” word to them anyways, so there remains no point in editing it out of the text. Further, the presence of the word prompted a valuable talk with his children. What he reads to them aloud is his business.

But the simplest and yet most powerful argument against the censorship of Huck Finn comes from The Daily Show’s “Senior Black Correspondent” Larry Wilmore. In direct opposition to Chabon’s underlying assumption that the word-switch was, “no big thing,” Wilmore said, “The n-word speaks to a society that casually dehumanized black people. Slave was just a job description. And it’s not even accurate — in the book Jim is no longer a slave, he ran away. Twain’s point is that he can’t run away from being a nigger.”

Gribben has said that he is “by no means sanitizing Mark Twain … The sharp social critiques are in there.” But the sharp social critique lies precisely in the use of the word Gribben suggested eliminating. He alters the social critique. Additionally, we know what word “slave” replaces. What about the readers who don’t know, who will think “slave” was Twain’s choice? How can he be so sure they will understand the sharp social critique?

In the end, the rewriting of Twain’s work is fundamentally unethical because it changes Twain’s intention — the words are inseparable from the content. Yet there is a more poignant and important reason for retaining, and teaching, the original text. The society in which Huck lives is deeply imperfect, and so is Huck. Huck surely is a hero in his way, but he is also flawed. He loves Jim, but social rules about racial relations remain engrained. Huck overcomes them to an extent, but Twain uses the pervasiveness of language to demonstrate the pervasiveness of an absurd and nonsensical ideology. The humor in the text further elaborates the absurdity of the social norms. Jim outsmarts Huck in order to help him time and time again, and yet Huck, blinded by social construct, fails to recognize this. Huck finds a version of freedom but he still aches to flee, to avoid “sivilization.” Huck is flawed because he is human, and even our hero can’t quite escape the failures of his society.

Ruby Perlmutter is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences and a Sun Arts and Entertainment Editor. She may be contacted at rperlmutter@cornellsun.com. Having Said That appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Ruby Perlmutter