Parenting

Huck Finn 2011: This Time It’s Personal!

According to Publishers Weekly, the upcoming NewSouth Books’ edition of Mark Twain’s seminal novel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, will no longer include any instances of the word “nigger” in the text. Instead, it will be replaced with the word “slave”. The new edition will also no longer include the word “Injun”.

This endeavor to PC-ify Huck Finn is apparently being led by Twain expert and Auburn University at Montgomery English Department head, Alan Gribben, who claims it is not an attempt to neuter the classic but rather to update it.

Says Gribben:

“This is not an effort to render Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn colorblind. Race matters in these books. It’s a matter of how you express that in the 21st century.”

Really? Should the manner in which race is expressed in Huck Finn be reflected in the 21st century? Should the manner in which we express race in the 21st century be reflected in Huck Finn? Should the manner in which we express race in the 21st century be reflected in a work of literature that transcends time precisely because it so skillfully captures a specific moment in it? What does this “Twain expert” know that we don’t? Did he discover that Twain was not commenting on an atrocity of the time the book was set, but simply writing a buddy story about Huck and Jim that we can update every couple of decades to suit our current culture?Jim and Huck

I can’t wait for the version with the rapping river boat captains, or the version where the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson sign on as a couple of skank ‘ho’s on The Bachelor.

Now, I understand fully the horrible history associated with the word “nigger”, and I despise the arrogance, ignorance, and stupidity of the feeble-minded assholes who would use it to dehumanize another person. And I’m not suggesting, in any form or fashion, that we should throw the word around frivolously. But that’s not what Huck Finn is about. In fact, it could be argued that the lesson of Huck Finn is the exact opposite.

But here’s where we, as critical thinkers, run into a problem. It’s not always easy to apply skepticism to subjective enterprises, like art and literature. Things that are interpretive don’t always have concrete answers. Can we be sure of the intent? How do we measure the impact of the novel in it’s original form on the reader? Can we show that diluting the language would lessen the impact?

With even a little research, we can see that Twain’s book has been one of the most misunderstood novels of all time. Many readers insist it perpetuates the prejudiced attitudes it is criticizing. And as it’s a work of literature that doesn’t come right out and say “This book is meant to illustrate how bad slavery/racism really is,” how confident can we be saying that that was not the intended impact?

Mark TwainOn the other hand, some say removing the supposed offensive language could eleminate the controversy and put the book into the hands of kids who would not otherwise be allowed to read it because of overprotective parents and short-sighted school boards. Can we say with any confidence that the impact of a doctored version would be any less than the unaltered version?

When it comes to the subjective, once we get past opinions, there just isn’t a lot of substance to sink our skeptical teeth into.

But what of censorship? Is that 400 lb gorilla big enough to overshadow the other issues?

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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87 Comments

  1. This pisses me off so much.

    Mark Twain was a master of the American idiom and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in particular shows an astounding array of dialect and infliction; it reads like music and, while I hate the words that were used, they were used for a reason. Changing any of this screws with the rhythm of the entire work and sullies a masterpiece. Is this guy pushing for retouches to the Mona Lisa too?

    Anyone that looks into the writings of Mark Twain will quickly realize he was as far from a racist as anyone from his era could be. Maybe this guy would like to add a sundeck to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Waters too.

    Fucking Philistine. Some times I really hate scholars.

    If this guy was truly an Twain “expert” he wouldn’t be so quick to shit on his greatest work.

    Bloody hell. /rant

  2. I don’t actually see the issue here. They are bringing out a new edition in a form that can be passed around in schools…

    I know I wouldn’t want to have to explain to a 8 to 12 year old what a nigger was, nor would I want their parents angry that they learnt that at school.

    The older editions will always be around, just not on the school curriculum/reading list.

  3. I think an essential component of reading a period piece is understanding the period it came from, and I’m not so sure I’d call this censorship as much as a feeble attempt to accommodate some current sensibilities. In 1574 El Greco offered to chip away Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco’s and paint a new fresco that would “be decent and pious and no less well-painted than Michelangelo’s.” In the end the naughty bits were painted over and anyone who’s seen this work of art has been left all the poorer for that sad decision. Imagine if El Greco had been listened to and be glad that older books like this are no longer under copyright so I doubt there will ever be a shortage of copies available as originally written with all the naughty bits hanging out like Jim’s manhood.

  4. This book, if published, will be like the TV censored version of ‘Blazing Saddles’ – far short of the original.

    What 8 year old has not heard that word before? Only the rare 8 year old with no friends and no access to rap music.

  5. Based on the quote from Professor Gribben I believe that he has come to the conclusion that the language/times/themes of the book have become so far removed from the present day that it needs to be “translated” for a modern audience.
    If this is his meaning then translation theory would support the notion of substituting modern words which have the same emotional/cultural impact as the original term had in its own time.
    The questions then become:
    1) Is Huck Finn so far removed from our contemporary world that it needs to be “translated”?
    2) Does “slave” have the modern equivalent emotional / connotative meaning as {the word I don’t dare type on this work computer} did to the readers of Twain’s day?
    I personally believe that Huck Finn does not need to be translated for the contemporary reader (this ain’t Beowulf).
    Question #2 is still interesting. {The word I dare not type on this work computer} may indeed be carrying so much layered meaning as to no longer have the impact Twain originally intended or that his target audience would have taken.
    That being said, I very seriously doubt that “slave” is an adequate substitute.

  6. I think it is better. This way they get to talk about the contraversy and why calling a person of color a “slave” is somehow ok, but calling them the “n-work” isn’t.

    The important lesson here is why were black people kept as slaves, and why were so many “leaders” ok with it?

  7. I’m steamed. Huck Finn is one of my all-time favorites. Dang. I can’t believe this. From an ignorant parent maybe, but from a scholar?
    I’ve started to write so many things, and I keep backspacing and starting over. I’ve always loathed abridged editions, and I refuse to discuss any book with someone who speed reads. Literature, like any art, cannot be appreciated or even fully understood until it is experienced. Every word in that book is part of the experience, and removing or replacing them changes the experience significantly.
    This was made clear to me, intrestingly enough, through a painting. I’d seen many Monet prints and pictures (because who hasn’t, they’re everywhere) and had dismissed a great many of them as boring. Then one day I came across one of the original paintings I’d dismissed in a museum. It floored me. There was so much more to it than you could see in a picture or a print. The haystack was just a haystack. That’s not where the art is. To find the art you have to look at the textures, the paint, the way each individual stroke seems to carry a purpose. The same applies to words in books. Each word is there for a reason. It has been chosen carefully, survived revisions and editing. It may even have been the object of contention between the author and the publisher. It is there because it has to be. Every word is as necessary to the story as each lungfull of air is necessary to our survival. It is a lesser crime to ban the book than to alter it.

  8. I think this is just awful. And I think it is a form of censorship. I can only think of one possible good outcome. Kids hate to be told that they can’t do something. Perhaps it will send some kids out to read the original uncensored version. I know that the only reason I picked up “And then again maybe I won’t” by Judy Blume was because it was banned by my school.

  9. What censorship? The book is in the public domain and freely available all over the internet – you are free to publish a version where every word is the n- word, if you so choose.

    I think it’s actually sort of an interesting idea – the n- word as undoubtedly changed meaning over time, so why is this word replacement any worse than the other elisions and translations that occur in abridged versions of classic novels?

    On the other hand, I had a literature teacher in high school who would black out all the ‘naughty’ words in books, which pissed me off to no end, and this isn’t too far different. I guess it’s an issue of consumer choice.

  10. Sorry, I am back to complain some more; I’ll try to keep the swearing to a minimum.

    You see Mark Twain is the author that taught me to love to read; he holds a special place in my heart for that reason. I knew reading could be fun from Dr. Seuss and Shel Siverstein and I knew that reading could offer adventure because of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Lucy Maud Montgomery but I had never known the pure love of reading until I was given The Adventures of Tom Sawyer for my seventh birthday. I read that book over and over again at first needing help with the biggest words and later knowing it by memory but loving the feel of the pages in my fingers. I asked my father for more Mark Twain and he obliged, I was soon caught up in King Arthur’s court, I rode a wagon to the untamed west and later a ship overseas, and I read charming and hilarious stories of frogs, and princes, and Pudd’nhead Wilson.

    My father never give me Huck Finn though, and I thank him for that. I didn’t read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn until I was fourteen and took it out of the school library myself. While others were identifying with Holden Caulfield and Jack Kerouac I was heading toward adventure with Huck and Jim and fearing the reprisals of Pap. I have since then read The Catcher in the Rye and On the Road and found I cared for neither very much; my mind had been captured by the pure poetry that is Huck Finn.

    Perhaps you can see now why I am so outraged by this move. They are doing this to the “official” version, the one that will be seen as the definitive version in future years, and I am afraid that they may be depriving someone the beauty and joy that made me devour books. I come for northern Illinois and it was not unusual for ethnic and racial jokes to be tossed off casually; I credit my time with Huck Finn and “nigger” Jim as opening my eyes to the humanity in all of us. Huckleberry Finn may have called Jim “nigger” but he treated him as a friend and that is what stuck with me. If they wish to put out an altered version and call it “altered” or “alternative” I have no problem with that; I do have a problem with it being “official” though.

    I am tearing up just thinking that someone might miss out on that because of a societal discomfort with a word. I see this Alan Gribben as the equivalent of the doctor that destroyed Julie Andrews’ voice, perhaps well meaning but sadly misguided.

    This seriously harshed my mood today.

  11. I understand the argument that the book is in the public domain, and that one can release an edition without the “n-word,” or one where it is replaced with “alien” or “zombie” if one should so desire.

    However, I think that you can no longer really consider the book the same work of art once such severe editing has taken place. It’s not about Twain’s words and ideas anymore — it’s about the editor’s oversensitivity.

    I don’t want to lapse into essentialism — there is no ONE TRUE FORM for any book, and all texts have generally been edited by someone other than the author — but I honestly think there’s more to be gained by looking at an uncontested classic, warts and all, rather than updating it and diverting it from the original creator’s intentions. There’s certainly more to be gained out of the discussion about the offensive content than there is from leaving it out.

    And, yes, it’s a bit of a slippery slope, but the question becomes “Where does this stop?” If students in different places read different versions of THIS book, what’s to stop other schools from doing the same? Certain special interest groups (read as: religious fundies) could start a lucrative sideline printing “clean” versions of public domain books and selling them to gun-shy school districts. I think that would put those kids at a disadvantage if/when they head off to college and realize that they’ve been sheltered.

  12. I dislike censorship on principle, so I don’t want to defend this. But I’m also hesitant to criticize it too eagerly: as a straight white male, I’ve never had any integral aspect of my identity (race, gender, orientation, etc) reduced to a hateful slur. I haven’t had to grow up as a minority, or face any sort of discrimination. I don’t know what’s involved in growing up in that sort of environment, or what it’s like being required to read a book that uses that sort of language in it, or to participate in class discussions that will almost certainly touch on that language in some way. So I don’t really feel comfortable saying that some kid in that situation should just suck it up and read the book because it’s great art. I’ve been lucky because, to me, “The N Word” is only a word; to a black person, it may carry a lot more baggage, and I feel a responsibility to respect that.

    Of course, the original language is ideal for capturing the full flavor and
    Impact of a book, and a skilled teacher, working with mature and insightful students, could no doubt pull some great lessons out of the controversy of the language…but I could also see a class getting hijacked by the controversy, and the rest of the book getting short-changed for it.

    So who knows?

  13. Expatria –
    I get a laugh out of how religions even clean up their own books.
    I remember seeing my neice’s “Children’s Bible” open to the story of Noah and the Flood. Kids love their animals and there were bright pictures of the animals marching in to the Ark and then the rains coming down. There was the seemingly required image of the giraffe with its head sticking out of the top of the Ark as it sailed along.
    What was missing? Any mention of the millions of people murdered by a vengeful god.
    Same thing with Jesus. We see Jesus before Pilate. We see Jesus being led away. He looks sad. Turn the page and we see Jesus stepping out of his tomb on Easter. I seem to recall some filler in between those two events in the Bible I read as a kid…

  14. @Expatria

    Certain special interest groups (read as: religious fundies) could start a lucrative sideline printing “clean” versions of public domain books and selling them to gun-shy school districts.

    At least they would never do that to On the Origin of Species, no, wait. :cough: Ray Comfort :cough:

    Damn.

  15. I think Huck speaks to the current situation pretty well, if the intent is to civilize his story.

    “There ain’t nothing more to write about, and I am rotten glad of it, because if I’d a knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldn’t a tackled it, and ain’t a-going to no more. But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”

  16. @jynnan_tonnyx

    The history books have been scrubbed of anything that makes people like us (I’m white like you too) from having to feel bad about anything that people who look like us have ever done.

    The Romans are only heroes to all but the Jews of the Bible, Vikings are nobel explorers not pillaging rapists, and my nephew’s history book no longer even mentions “manifest destiny”. We have never had to deal with any of these truths because we have owned the culture and can wipe them clean; and, I believe, we are poorer for not facing hard facts.

    And, while I understand your reluctance to force others the face hard facts about how they were and are treated as a people, let’s not mistake this move for anything more than the white guilt that it is. @.02

  17. Only a ginger can call another ginger “ginger.”

    In all seriousness, I hardly think this a complicated issue. Mark Twain was forthright and scathing in his accostments of those he felt worth his criticism. He didn’t pussyfoot around an issue for fear of offending someone. If we are to teach him or his work, we cannot either.

    “On the other hand, some say removing the supposed offensive language could eleminate the controversy and put the book into the hands of kids who would not otherwise be allowed to read it because of overprotective parents and short-sighted school boards.”

    We’re still punishing the children for the parents’ personal ignorance, and we aren’t doing anything to fix the real problem: the parents’ personal ignorance.

  18. @Expatria:

    All other issues aside, this is exactly what concerns me most. Yes, we’re making extreme examples, but the point is valid.

    Whether “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”. Or changing guns in movies to walkie talkies. Or recording a version of “Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw” with the updated lyrics, “Why don’t we have some tea and side hug.” You can get to a point quickly where the end product is no longer recognizable as the intended piece of art.

    I’m looking at you “Gulliver’s Travels”.

  19. James Fox –
    I have an advanced copy of Professor Gribbens translation right here. Let me see….

    “Thankfully there is nothing more to write about. Had I known how hard it was to write a book I would never have started nor will I ever make the attempt in the future. My Aunt Sally has told me she intends to adopt me and “civilize” me which I would not be able to accept. I have been down that road before and did not enjoy it. There appears to be nothing else to do but to run away to the newly opened Territory.

  20. @mrmisconception:

    I agree with this comment so much. This whole thing is about nothing BUT white people who are trying to get rid of something that makes them feel uncomfortable, when it’s possible to have lots of ACTUALLY productive discussions about race in the classroom if they left the word in.
    The presence of the word *should* make us feel uncomfortable. Back then, times were different and if you were black in the US, you were likely not treated very well…it’s important for our kids to see that so they don’t repeat the mistakes we made in the past.

  21. Twain never intended Huck Finn to be read by children. (It’s social satire for adults that got relegated to the YA crowd because of the age of the protagonist.) In fact he was heavily against it.

    Twain also supported Charles Lamb’s bowdlerized and heavily watered-down Shakespeare. I paraphrase but he thanked Lamb for making the classics fit to put in the hands of children.

    It would be wonderful to read the scathing retort Twain would have come up with for this stupidity.

  22. Wait, isn’t this alteration specifically about the issue of race, and how best to handle the discussion of it in modern culture? Why is the conversation here morphing into one about more arbitrary and trivial alterations to art?

    Does anyone else worry that it trivializes the issue of racism to dismissively compare concern about it to airbrushing guns out of movies? Or think That whites should examine the privilege that enables us to discuss this issue academically, rather than as a crucial aspect of us and our place in society?

    Or am I being too sensitive here? I’m kind of new to certain elements of progressivism, maybe I need to dial it back a bit.

  23. @jynnan_tonnyx:

    you are mistaken in one point. Avoiding the issue will not remove the bagage or help anyone deal with it.
    A lot of people avoid sensitive topics for fear or hurting others, especially children. What you forget is that silence hurts like hell too. What’s worse, it adds to the problem. It must be an awful thing if we can’t even talk about it. It becomes the elephant in the room, and very much in the present. I would argue that more children would benefit from taking one or two or three class periods to discuss the use of the n-word, why it was used and how it was used and how we feel about its use now than can ever be spared by cleaning up the book.
    In fact, I’m inclined to agree with mrmisconception and say it’s not about protecting the feelings of those who might be hurt at all. It’s about not wanting to eat crow. It’s easier to say let’s change the book than it is to stand before a class full of children and tell them that their grandparents were wrong, that we as a culture were wrong, and that we have wronged them. I can’t say that I have experienced racism, but I can say that I grew up in a home and a culture where, because I was a female, I was expected to serve my family in all things and have no opinion of my own. You might say that didn’t work out (LOL).
    The bottom line is, the way to deal with the bagage is to unpack it, put things where they belong, and then slide the empty bags under the bed. Or as it were, get the past out in the open, see it for what it was, and eat the damned crow.

  24. Changing ‘nigger’ to ‘slave’ changes the story to something that is at best a caricature of Mark Twain’s creation. Twain depicted a white boy and a black man as friends and equals, but a free person and a slave can not be equals.

    Twain himself said “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is as the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

    Whatever Gribben’s concoction might be called, the excerpt quoted by SkepLit shows that calling it “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is a travesty and an insult to a great author.

  25. I feel I need to explicitly clarify that I concocted the Gribben translation. I may disagree with Professor Gribben’s decision to change Huck Finn but I wouldn’t want to insult him by making him sound like an incompetent boob.

  26. @Bookitty

    Twain never intended Huck Finn to be read by children.

    THANK YOU!

    Tom Sawyer is Y.A., it belongs right next to The Secret Garden and Black Beauty; Huck Finn fits more in with Slaughterhouse 5 and 1984 and it deals with adult topics.

    I believe that Twain’s backing of Lamb’s Shakespeare is different in that Lamb’s Shakespeare was intended to be the Y.A. version of the bard’s word, so to speak, rather than a replacement.

    I see Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn as equivalentto “The Frighteners” and “The Lord of the Rings”; both great, both Peter Jackson, but one is a light and playful romp and the other is “The Frighteners”.

  27. @gwenwifar:

    Well, my intention was not to advocate avoiding any issue. My understanding was that the edited text was not meant to avoid any issue but to revise the presentation of that issue…whether this was meant to make white people more comfortable, or make black people feel less threatened, I’m not sure. I don’t know that anyone here does, either.

    My point was only that I feel uncomfortable dismissing or trivializing concerns if my experiences don’t allow me to fully understand them. I get white-washing history to make white people feel less guilty or squeamish, and I can comfortably call it BS. I don’t know what it’s like to be black in America, and if someone feels it doesn’t help matters to allow these slurs into school discussions on the matter, I don’t feel comfortable dismissing those concerns from my position of ignorance. I don’t feel comfortable dismissing others’ concerns as overly-sensitive if I can’t appreciate where those concerns are coming from.

  28. @gwenwifar said:
    “It’s easier to say let’s change the book than it is to stand before a class full of children and tell them that their grandparents were wrong, that we as a culture were wrong, and that we have wronged them.”

    Spot on.

    Gribben said: “It’s a matter of how you express that in the 21st century.”

    Here’s an idea – instead of taking the lazy way out and changing the text, how about we give teachers the skills, ability, and freedom to teach how humans have changed they way they thought, spoke, and acted through the centuries. Why don’t we give kids the benefit of learning to use their brains to learn and think about things like this, like generations of students have before them?

    This doesn’t just hurt the story, it hurts the students.

  29. @Skulleigh

    Here’s an idea – instead of taking the lazy way out and changing the text, how about we give teachers the skills, ability, and freedom to teach how humans have changed they way they thought, spoke, and acted through the centuries.

    Or write a foreward; a time honored way of adding context to, without destroying the content of, a work of art.

  30. @jynnan_tonnyx

    My point was only that I feel uncomfortable dismissing or trivializing concerns if my experiences don’t allow me to fully understand them.

    And I commend you for that, I really do, I don’t wish to dismiss the experiences of a culture I am not part of either. It shows that you are a reasonable and caring person. The problem with that is, and correct me if I’m misunderstanding, it seems that you think it is blacks that are demanding, or even asking for, this change. If it were blacks calling for these changes the response might be quite different; like it has been every time blacks (or women, or gays, or… you get the picture) have asked for things to be changed. But then the issue was the actual treatment of blacks rather than an emotionally charged word that makes a lot of people (mostly whites) uncomfortable.

    Let’s either use a version that has been altered to spare feelings and is clearly marked as such or use the original and explain upfront that there are going to be words that may offend and have the discussion as it comes up or as a follow-up assignment.

    No pussyfooting around it.

  31. @scribe999: Traditional New Year’s viewing of Casablanca, my friend (huge Star Wars geek) noticed the Major Strasser shot first… Rick shouldn’t have waited.

    It’s wonder they haven’t edited it so that Ilsa doesn’t call Sam “boy”, which was historically accurate despite being ignorant and insulting. Did the writers use this on purpose to point out that even the heroic anti-Nazis had cultural baggage that should be eliminated? Or were they just mindlessly reflecting their times? I’m sure Twain used every word consciously and deliberately, but I’m not so sure about the movie. I think the lesson, either way, is we all have such habits of thought and the best way to overcome them is to discuss them, not to censor them.

    BTW, I think the original public domain text should be downloadable for free on Kindles and similar readers, so I hope @Gabrielbrawley is right.

  32. @mrmisconception: Exactly!

    I would have hated an edited version when I was a kid. Anyone else remember those illustrated edited & abridged classics you could get really cheap back in the 80s? The ones whos pages turned yellow nearly instantly on contact with the light?

    I remember getting a couple, noticing that it said it was abridged, and had to look up the word. I was quite irritated when I learned what it meant – they were stealing story from me! How dare they!

  33. @Buzz Parsec

    BTW, I think the original public domain text should be downloadable for free on Kindles and similar readers, so I hope @Gabrielbrawley is right.

    The JREF is putting out “public domain” versions of many out of print freethought books on the Kindle and as apps. Maybe we can point this storry out to DJ Grothe to see if this could join the ranks.

  34. @scribe999:

    Indeed. Which is why I’ve been expressing hesitation and confusion about condemning the edited text, rather than openly championing it.

    If I haven’t been clear, I’m sorry. I think the unedited original of any art is preferable to a watered-down version. But editing for content for certain audiences is not unheard of, and it doesn’t seem right for a move like this to be so enthusiastically condemned with only a brief soundbyte presented in its defense. I’m opposed to one-sided arguments and knee-jerk reactions. I’m offering points for discussion, not pushing for a particular point of view, and I’m sorry if that wasn’t clear.

  35. @Skulleigh:

    Anyone else remember those illustrated edited & abridged classics you could get really cheap back in the 80s? The ones whos pages turned yellow nearly instantly on contact with the light?

    Well, I am way too young to remember those . . . ahem . . . But I remember those.

    It was almost like having your porn scrambled.

  36. @mrmisconception:

    “The problem with that is, and correct me if I’m misunderstanding, it seems that you think it is blacks that are demanding, or even asking for, this change.”

    Well, when I first commented, it wasn’t clear to me who was making the change or why. The point I wanted to make was that such questions should be looked at and considered before rushing to dismiss the concerns raised, or the decision that came from them.

    As it turns out, the professor is apparently a white man from Alabama. His reasons for making the change are still a but vague; the quote in the OP is his only on-the-record comment on the matter so far (I’m sure this will change now that the story has broken).

    My concern initially was only that it seemed too easy to condemn this change without fairly considering why it was being done, and what the consequences of doing it or not doing it were to students.

    In researching this, I found black bloggers protesting the perceived white-washing of American history, and white (supremacist?) bloggers protesting the concessions made to black students they perceived as “entitled” or “uppity”, or some such thing. I haven’t yet found anyone who’s gone on record defending the changes. But there are clearly a lot of facets to this discussion, and I didn’t like the idea that some of them might be getting over-looked.

    “Let’s either use a version that has been altered to spare feelings and is clearly marked as such or use the original and explain upfront that there are going to be words that may offend and have the discussion as it comes up or as a follow-up assignment.”

    Totally agreed…although, to be fair, we don’t know (do we?) that the edited version won’t be clearly marked, or have a forward discussing the alterations.

  37. @jynnan_tonnyx

    If I haven’t been clear, I’m sorry. I think the unedited original of any art is preferable to a watered-down version. But editing for content for certain audiences is not unheard of, and it doesn’t seem right for a move like this to be so enthusiastically condemned with only a brief soundbyte presented in its defense. I’m opposed to one-sided arguments and knee-jerk reactions. I’m offering points for discussion, not pushing for a particular point of view, and I’m sorry if that wasn’t clear.

    I know you weren’t addressing me specifically but I want to say, at least to me, you are being perfectly clear. The points that are being addressed to you are only being addressed to you because you are the only one making the particular point you are making and not because we are attacking or dismissing your point. (If that run-on sentence made any sense)

    I understand your point and don’t necessarily disagree with it; in fact some of what is being said is a bit of hyperbole (the use of censorship for example) and that is to be expected, even us skeptics are prone to human emotion. If NewSouth Books (isn’t that ironic) were announcing that they would be coming out with this redacted edited version that was aimed at the classroom in addition to the already available unedited version this would not even be a story; what they are planning is this being their only version of the book. I have been told that NewSouth is used prominently in classrooms (any teachers know differently?) because they give deep discounts and have a nice presentation; if that is the case and this is going to be the version that many high-schoolers will be learning from; that is where the problem lies. It would be better if this new version explains that it is altered in some way (I don’t believe that was mentioned either way) even if it doesn’t expressly state how; better yet if the original were used in conjunction with the new version for context; and even better if the original were to be give a foreword or footnotes that explain the context of possibly offensive passages.

    I know you are new here and wanted to let you know that you weren’t being attacked; being addressed directly with a complete, or even partial, criticism can feel that way sometimes but we are mostly friendly around here.

  38. @jynnan_tonnyx:
    the represenation on the issue does not need to be clarified in any way, at least not in that way. Both words we have been discussing are words that are familiar to those children, as are their meanings, and most of the time even the subtlety of their connotations.
    What’s more, changing them diminishes the context. Look at this way. When I first read the book the thing the struck me the most wasn’t the adventure or the humor. What struck me was Jim, and how he was two different people. There are moments (even after he knows he has been given his freedom) when Jim is a slave. And there are moments on the raft, when he knows he could be captured and sent back at any moment, when Jim is a man. Jim’s character is not of this time, and neither is Huck’s. They make no sense in this time. If the book as it stands no longer delivers the message in a way the students can understand it (and I don’t believe this to be the case), then pick another book that does a better job of it.
    We’re still reading the Odyssey, and we haven’t felt the need to turn the Cyclops into a serial killer or Ulysses into a teen heart-throb.

    In my humble opinion copyright law should be amended so that when a work becomes public domain it can be shared and copied and pulished at will, but it cannot be altered and retain its name.

  39. I believe it is a mistake to say that there are no objective standards in literature. While it is much more subjective than, say, natural science, we can at least gain an understanding of what the author was trying to communicate by using traditional methods of literary criticism. Saying that literature is completely subjective leaves it open to postmodernist attacks. I think the arts need to be skeptically defended as well as the sciences.

  40. “But the truth is, that when a Library expels a book of mine and leaves an unexpurgated Bible lying around where unprotected youth and age can get hold of it, the deep unconscious irony of it delights me and doesn’t anger me.”
    – Letter to Mrs. F. G. Whitmore, 7 February 1907

  41. I posted here about this Twain revisionism nonsense a few months ago — though it seems it was roundly overlooked at the time. LOLQ.

    Both then and now one thing that really amazes me is how frightened people are of using such words as nigger even in an expository fashion.

    Come on folks, it is only a “bad” word (a phrase I am uncomfortable even posting because it is in itself such utter nonsense — there are no bad words; there are only bad uses of words) when it is used with bad intent. The childish posting of such nincompoopisms as “the n-word” does not in anyway move us forward.

  42. @rasmur: Too true.
    At an absolute level, literature is a purely subjective event. In much the same way that we can pull a “Matrix” and demand proof that we aren’t merely brains in a vat being fed the illusion of a material reality, we can also spend a lot of time suggesting that “the Text” exists only in the reader’s mind and that the author’s intent is irrelevent.
    We can do that. It would be true and it would be pointless.
    We may be brains in a vat and the material world just a really good simulation but we still exist in that simulation and have to make sense of it. The best tool we have is the scientific method.
    We may not have “perfect knowledge” of a text and our interpretations may be influenced by all of our personal emotional baggage but we still can find common language and common tools to examine and codify literature.
    It’s useful to pull out the post-modernist “no one can really know anything perfectly” cannard to keep oneself honest but it is simply more fulfilling to try to test the limits of what we can know.

  43. What we don’t need is a “sanitized Huck Finn.” When a scene is set in a particular time, one cannot update it so that it does not offend anyone. What occurred at the time the story is set is what should be retained. One must learn from previous mistakes, not cover them up.

  44. “I can’t wait for the version with the rapping river boat captains, or the version where the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson sign on as a couple of skank ‘ho’s on The Bachelor.”

    So we’re . . . fighting racism with racism. That’s great.

    For a non-racist article on why this change is complete bullshit, see Elon James White’s excellent piece in Salon: http://www.salon.com/life/this_week_in_blackness/index.html?story=/mwt/this_week_in_blackness/2011/01/04/huck_finn_n_word

  45. I don’t really get the anger about this because I see art being reinterpreted all the time – didn’t a recent radio edit replace “fuck” to “forget” to get airtime?

    What about when musicians cover/remix/sample other’s work?
    Or classic films get remade? (I remember my English teacher showing Leo diCaprio in “Romeo + Juliet” and they were all firing guns at each other!)
    Or when books (e.g. Treasure Island) are illustrated to make them accessible to kids?
    Or when new translations of books in foreign languages are brought out?

    I played in a schools’ band run by music teachers for my local area and sometimes the popular music had “fuck off” changed to “shut up” and sexual references made more oblique and so on. Everyone knew why that had to happen and I don’t think it was wrong given that the choice they had was clearly, change it or don’t let them play it.

    Maybe some teachers feel they can’t bring “Huck Finn” into the classroom as it stands and this will help, or maybe the old version will still be preferred but I don’t see how anyone actively loses either way (as long as the fact it’s been changed is made clear).

    This is most emphatically not equivalent to painting over the Sistine Chapel because the original is still there. If some parents are complete prudes and will only let their kids see Michelangelo’s work via prints with the genitals airbrushed out, is it really the case that it is better for the kids not to see it all? I don’t think so.

    And “Huck Finn” bored me to tears when I read it aged 12.

  46. @Arithmechick:

    So we’re . . . fighting racism with racism. That’s great.

    For a non-racist article on why this change is complete bullshit, see . . .

    You know, I’m usually a big proponent of ignoring crap, but you are really reeeeaaching with that bullshit comment.

    If you just want people to read the Salon article, you can just say so without being all high and mighty. You don’t have to pretend to be offended. I mean, you’d have to be a special kind of stupid to find racism in what you quoted.

  47. several years ago we drove back to Kansas from the east coast, listening to the audio book of Huck Finn. Crossing the Mississippi at St Louis while listening to this was enhancing, to say the least. The use of the original “nigger” became a contextual norm, after a lot of discomfort, but the norm. btw, go listen to Tim Minchin’s “prejudice song” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q-JIjEsLkDA

  48. @Shadow Of A Doubt:

    “What about when musicians cover/remix/sample other’s work?”

    Then American Pie by Mclean is joined by American Pie by Madonna (definitely not an improvement, but neither does Madonna try to pass it off as Mclean’s version).

    “Or classic films get remade? (I remember my English teacher showing Leo diCaprio in “Romeo + Juliet” and they were all firing guns at each other!)

    Interesting example. The picture was certainly updated, but the words were all Shakespeare’s. I don’t recall how much detail was included in the play regarding sets and such technical details, so I can’t judge if this would constitute a reinterpretation. The essence of the play is in the lines and the interactions, and those were not changed.

    Adding pictures (as in Treasure Island being illustrated) does not change the text, it merely provides a hand for those who need it.

    “Or when new translations of books in foreign languages are brought out?”
    As someone who is trained in translation I can tell you a translation is supposed to maintain the integrity of the intended meaning and all its underlying currents and implications. Any decent translation would include whatever the target culture’s equivalent terms are.

    Maybe some teachers feel they can’t bring “Huck Finn” into the classroom as it stands and this will help, or maybe the old version will still be preferred but I don’t see how anyone actively loses either way (as long as the fact it’s been changed is made clear).

    That would rather depend on what the goal in bringing the book into the classroom is in the first place, wouldn’t you say? Why is this book taught at all? A few possibilities:
    1 – Because it’s a great work of art. In this case, altering it is a waste of everyone’s time. The altered version is neither great nor a work of art. Let the kids read whatever they want instead. It’ll be more productive.

    2 – Because it freezes a moment in time that is in many ways essential to understanding the history of the USA. Well, in this case, altering the book misrepresents the time and the history, so why bother?

    3 – Because it is a study of human nature? Then altering it, and with it the essential makeup and nature of the characters undermines the study and makes it worthless yet again.

    4 – For the plot? Well, if that’s the reason skip both books and pop the cartoon version into the DVD player. It’s quicker, the kids will like it a lot more, and then they can get on with reading something they’re interested in.

    5 – Because the curriculum says we have to make the kids read it? I guess in that case it really doesn’t matter either way, Certainly nobody misses out because nobody has anything to gain from reading the original for this reason alone.

  49. @mrmisconception:

    my nephew’s history book no longer even mentions “manifest destiny”

    *boggles* How? How in the hell do you teach US history without the single guiding principle behind most of our policies?! None of it makes sense without that! Unless they want to avoid discussing the slaughter of natives and the complicated history we have with the entire South American continent. *disgust*

    As to the Twain article. I agree with the general comments about how this shouldn’t be edited and “cleaned up”. The concept that the original is somehow “dirty” is interesting. It was written in this “dirty” way exactly because it was supposed to be controversial and challenge peoples opinions and assumptions both within the common society at the time and in future readers’ societies.

    Secondly, I do feel that removing the n-word from the text does harm the educational experience for students. 8 – 12 is exactly the age in which children should begin understanding broader social constructs and discussing race with a critical eye. Introducing the n-word as a topic of discussion within the context of this book is an excellent way for teachers to discuss the socio-political era in which it was written and why we consider it a bad word today. Possibly even tracing the usage of the word and concepts through the ages into the civil rights movement and modern discussions of racial tension. I mean as an educator I would be jumping at the chance to have a book/discussion that would bridge so many different topics for my students. I would not only be teaching them about a great work I would be making connections between that work and their lives. Showing them that even old “boring” books are relevant and important to their world today.

  50. @Sam Ogden:

    No one likes to be called racist. But I can see how talk of “rapping” and “skank ‘ho’s” could be interpreted as invoking racial stereotypes within the context of a discussion about a racial slur.

    I’m sure your intent was NOT to say “Blacks are rewriting classic white literature! Where will it end?!”. And while I think Arithmechick’s comment was needlessly blunt and rude and deserving of a similar response, I don’t think out of hand dismissal of accusations of racism as bullshit or stupidity are as effective in fighting racism as being open to dialog and self-examination.

  51. I think the argument that it needs to be updated is crap. It’s a post-hoc rationalization. prime example – shakespeare. if old work did need to get updated, then why did I have to read shakespeare the classic way?

    there are more lessons going on than just a lit. lesson. This book is also showing the way people actually spoke and acted back then. Only by knowing the trials of the past can we appreciate the future.

    When I was in HS, we had to read Of Mice and Men aloud. Yes, there were complaints about language. While other people were replacing this offending word with “N-word”, I felt that broke rhythm. So, when I came to that word, I replaced it with “dude”. So, “we are going to lynch that n****r” became “we are going to lynch that dude”.

  52. “In fact, it could be argued that the lesson of Huck Finn is the exact opposite.”

    If you replace “it could be argued” with “it was frickin’ obvious to even the casual reader in their early teens”, then we might agree. :)

    “But here’s where we, as critical thinkers, run into a problem. It’s not always easy to apply skepticism to subjective enterprises, like art and literature.”

    Um…what? Since when? My mom (thirty-ish yearas ago) made us color in the breasts and crotches on the cover of our DnD books…are you gonna stand there and tell me she “might have been right, because she was offended by them”?

    It *is* skepticism to say “for what reason do you want this change, and does it destroy the author’s intent?” as opposed to “gosh, sorry this offends you, I understand you want us to change it”.

    Gonna line up with the anti-vacs now? “I gotcha that you’re worried about mercury; don’t think it’s a big deal, but, hey, mercury is a big deal in sufficient quantity, and I feel that you’re concerned that the scientific community hasn’t adequately addressed your concerns, even if they’re rather contradictory, and I feel that”. :P

    It was stupid then, it’s stupid now. Let’s leave the most single recognized american author alone, and deal with our own hang-ups without editing.

    Or not.

  53. ” If some parents are complete prudes and will only let their kids see Michelangelo’s work via prints with the genitals airbrushed out, is it really the case that it is better for the kids not to see it all? ”

    Yes, and that’s the point. Do you want to present a sanitized version of art? of history? If they can’t handle the reality, move it to an older age bracket…and if you, they, and I can’t handle it at an older age bracket, well, we’ve got deeper problems that need to be addressed.

    Which was kinda Clemens’ point.

  54. @jynnan_tonnyx: Sure, I’ll take that. I don’t mind being called a bitch — not at all, or I wouldn’t have lasted this long. But the references the OP made to Black culture were racist, period.

    I have no personal connection to the Salon article. I follow the author on Twitter, and he is a Black political voice I deeply respect. The point of the comment was not to reroute people to the Salon article; it was to show that this horrible idea, of “santizing” Twain, is an idea that can be fought without resorting to the use of racist narratives.

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