Friday, January 7, 2011

H*ck Finn

In case you haven't heard, a "Twain scholar" named Alan Gribben, with the help of a small publishing company called NewSouth, is publishing an edited version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn which removes all instances of the "n-word," replacing it with the word "slave." Huck is a regular on lists of banned books, generally due to its use of this word, and Gribben says he hopes that its removal will let the book reach a wider audience by removing the offensive content. A laudable intention, I'll grant, but bowdlerizing Twain is not the way to accomplish it.

Gribben says the inspiration for the project came from comments he heard from teachers: "After a number of talks, I was sought out by local teachers, and to a person they said we would love to teach [Tom Sawyer], and Huckleberry Finn, but we feel we can't do it anymore. In the new classroom, it's really not acceptable." I would argue that the fault here lies not with Twain's language, but rather with the teachers. I read Huck Finn in high school, and it was not a big deal. The teacher did not make a speech of any sort before we read the book, and offered no disclaimers or apologies for its content; instead, we had spirited class discussion about the book, including the language used, its meaning, Twain's intentions as a satirist, and the implications of various aspects of the text, both in the 19th century and today. If students cannot understand the concept of context, then it is the teacher's job to explain it to them. If the teacher is uncomfortable talking about difficult subjects with their students to the point where they simply refuse to do it, then that person is not qualified be a teacher. Rather than "less offensive" books, we need teachers who are willing and able to properly teach their students, which for English teachers includes helping them examine satire, providing proper context for literature, and not shying away from problematic parts of books.

(As far as number of people reading the book, it is also worth pointing out that there is a not-insignificant number of people, including teenagers, who set out to read books precisely because they have been banned, as promoted by the ALA's Banned Books Week, among others.)

Gribben also added a personal anecdote about his daughter's experience with the book: "My daughter went to a magnet school and one of her best friends was an African-American girl. She loathed the book, could barely read it." I don't doubt it. But that is the very point: satire makes people uncomfortable. It points out societal problems, in the hope that ridicule will make people think about what is going on and hopefully eradicate the problem. It's the same thing Jonathan Swift was doing when he advocated eating babies, and it's the same thing Jon Stewart did a couple weeks ago when he pointed out the hypocrisy of the Republicans who were blocking the 9/11 responders health care bill in Congress. The fact that the n-word still makes people uncomfortable only shows that racism still exists today, and far from being censored or banned, books like Huck Finn neet to be read as they are so that people continue to think about these issues that make them uncomfortable, and what they can do to stop them.

Another thing to take into account is Twain himself. He was on the record numerous times during his life as being absolutely opposed to people changing his work. Furthermore, at the beginning of Huck Finn, he puts the following note:
IN this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary "Pike County" dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.

I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.
It says right there that the language used in the book's dialogue was done "painstakingly" — Twain knew what he was doing and he did it on purpose. And this isn't a matter of something being lost due to language change, either; he meant exactly what it sounds like to us today. Some words were considered perfectly acceptable in the past, and no longer are; for example, in the past, black people could be described as "colored" in polite conversation, but today that would be a faux-pas, at best. The "n-word" is not one of those words. It has never been anything but an insult, an offensive term for people thought to be inferior. The difference is that modern society has, for the most part, accepted that people are not superior or inferior because of race, and so it is no longer considered acceptable to use that word.

Removing the "n-word" from Huck Finn is tantamount to whitewashing. Sure, the racism is still there, but it's not nearly as viscerally affecting to hear someone called a "slave" as it is to hear them called a "n----r." The satire is rendered toothless when the ugliness it's pointing at has been removed. Sure, people who wouldn't have read the book before might be a bit more likely to read it, but what's the point if it's not the same book?