American Culture

The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter with Twain's Huck Finn

Mark Twain is rolling over in his grave. I should know: he’s buried not too far from where I live.

NewSouth books has announced that it will publish a censored version of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, paired with Tom Sawyer, that eliminates “the N-word.”

That’s “nigger,” in case anyone doesn’t get it.

I find the word offensive. Nearly everyone I know finds it offensive. But what I find more offensive is the notion that it’s okay to censor art. I find it offensive to revise history. I find it offensive that the Thought Police can bully people over free speech.

The man behind the revisionist effort is Alan Gribben, a professor at Auburn University. “For a single word to form a barrier, it seems such an unnecessary state of affairs,” he told Publishers Weekly. “Race matters in these books. It’s a matter of how you express that in the 21st century.”

But see, that’s just it: Twain wasn’t expressing himself in the 21st century. He published the book in 1885. Revising the text is nothing more than the imposition of 21st century values on a 126-year-old-text.

I’m not talking about judging a work of art using modern tastes, either, which is also arguably a way in which we apply modern values to something from the past. That’s part of how we judge a work of art and why some pieces go in and out of favor, over and over, through the passage of time. But we don’t demand that the art change. We take it as it is.

According to one count, the N-word appears 219 times in Huck Finn. I did a quick search-and-replace and came up with 212 substitutions. In the new edition, there will be zero. The word will be purged, with the word “slave” substituted instead. The word “Injun’” will be removed, too.

“When do we decide ‘slavery’ is offensive and change slave to ‘man?’” one of my friends asked during an online bitch session that erupted shortly after we heard the news. “When do we decide ‘man’ is offensive and change it to ‘person’?”

Another friend suggested that “[m]aybe they’ll fix the grammar and syntax so Huck always speaks proper English and clean up all the carefully researched dialects so it’s easier to read.”

The publisher has defended its edition by pointing out that “there are plenty of other books out there—all of them, in fact—that faithfully replicate the text, and that this was simply an option for those who were increasingly uncomfortable…insisting students read a text which was so incredibly hurtful.”

Indeed, I heard from a friend of mine who teaches eighth grade and does an entire unit on Twain. “I might actually be able to teach the book now,” she said, sounding a hopeful note even though she didn’t like the idea of revisionism.

But she’s felt first-hand the brunt of angry parents who call to bitch about things their kids have to read in class. She can envision a mob of angry parents showing up at a school board meeting with torches and pitchforks demanding that someone do something about that offensive book.

For that reason, boards around the country prohibit the book from showing up in the curriculum—or even showing up in the school library. Huck Finn remains one of the most embattled books in America simply because asshats refuse to understand any of the book’s context.

God forbid we should expose students to difficult questions of race and force them to confront those issues head-on. God forbid we should ask students to consider what it really means to respect other people—in the context of the book and in the context of how we talk about the book.

Nope. Instead, let’s all play nice and pretend that everyone has always gotten along forever. That’s such a happier vision of the world, even if, unfortunately, it’s bullshit.

By avoiding such controversy, Gribben hopes the revised Huck Finn will be more palatable for wider audiences.

That really sent one of my friends into a tizzy. “THAT is the scary thing: that more people would be likely to read the book,” she said. “We not only want to shape the present world to fit our wishes (which is impossible as it is), but now we want to shape the past as well by making it a place where the N-word didn’t exist. If we forget who we were and where we come from, how can we ever know who we are or who we want to be?”

Another friend piggbacked off that: “Can’t an intelligent person understand the culture of the time in which it was written? Sure we have come a long way but sometimes you have to see where you have been to appreciate where you are.”

Twain was not any more racist than most average citizens of his day, and he was not a fan of the South’s “peculiar institution.” That he used the N-word in his work reflected the time and place he was writing about. “The ignorant and persistent belief that Mark Twain was automatically a racist because he used that word reflects a severe lack of familiarity with his work and his life,” one of my friends pointed out.

But even if Twain was racist, another friend said, it wouldn’t be a reason to change the book. “Either you decide you want to read a work of art as it was created—and maybe familiarize yourself with the person that created it and the circumstances in which it was created, and, who knows, even learn something in the process—or you don’t,” she said.

The most troubling comment came from one of my students: “What will be edited next?”

The more I think about that question and the implications it suggests, the more I shudder.

I’ve already heard echoes of an Orwellian 1984, where everything is subject to continual revision. “Once we start down this path,” a friend worried, “we’ll have ‘Goodpast’ instead of the real past, where events of the past are ‘retold’ to fit modern sensibilities.”

Undoubtedly, the specter of dollar signs looms in the background, too. NewSouth, for all its noble talk, has to hear the ca-ching, ca-ching from all those new readers the edition is designed to attract.

For that reason—and maybe that reason alone—Twain might not actually object to the revision. He spent much of his professional life writing to make a buck so that he could stave off creditors. He toiled under the yoke of the almighty dollar, so he might appreciate the commercial success of the book.

But what writer wants his words tampered with, especially a writer as keenly conscious of word choice as Twain? He famously said, “The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

So I can’t help but think Twain would object to anyone fiddling with his words, even if it was just one word, used 219 times. I don’t think he’d care that he was ruffling feathers, either, since he seemed to delight in thumbing his nose at people.

“If he were only alive so he could roast these people as only he knew how,” one of my friends said.

I can hear him banging on his coffin lid now….

9 replies »

  1. The ugliness of racism is not going to disappear by banishing what some deem to be the most offensive word in American English. Some other word will rise to the occasion and take its place as the most offensive until it is banished and its successor banished. The process will continue ad infinitum until we are reduced to grunts and nose whistles. The ugliness of racism is especially not going to disappear by ignorantly attacking the work of authors such as Twain, who struggled against the racism of slavery at a time when racism was much uglier and visceral than it is today. Today’s racism consists largely of being offended rather than whipped while enslaved. Perhaps we can allow some room for Mr. Twain to tell his stories as he wishes so that we can experience what he saw and realize how far we have come. But that would require liberals to acknowledge that America is not as awful as they want us to believe it is. Pity them. They are missing a great book.

  2. About 30-35 years ago, I was living in Farifax County, Virginia, right outside of DC. Around that time, the community and several people w/in Mark Twain Junior High School were actually trying to get Huck and Tom banned from the school library. Even back then, when I was even more illiterate than I am now, I kept thinking WTF?

  3. I remember in English class when we had to read parts of the book aloud. So one person would read a paragraph, then next would read one, and so on. We always got excited when we got to say that word out loud. It was really the only time when someone would want to read the next paragraph. So in a way, this word got people in my class excited to read.

  4. A bowdlerized version of Huck Finn won’t fly, anymore than the original bowdlerization of Shakespeare did. Who reads Bowdler’s version now? It’s a monumentally stupid idea.

  5. I would like to point out that the last thing I taught, before my contract with the charter school was terminated last June, was Huckleberry Finn. I read the whole thing aloud, even the word that some people want removed, three times. It took nine weeks. Totally worth it.

  6. I guess painting leaves over the naughty bits is better than destroying the work completely. That way, future generations can look back and think about how our stupidity and myopia deprived them of untold beauty and insight.

  7. About 30-35 years ago, I was living in Farifax County, Virginia, right outside of DC. Around that time, the community and several people w/in Mark Twain Junior High School were actually trying to get Huck and Tom banned from the school library. Even back then, when I was even more illiterate than I am now, I kept thinking WTF?

  8. I don’t find any words offensive. None. What I find offensive is bad ideas. Like the idea that people with dark skin are inferior.