"Outside a dog a book is man's best friend, inside a dog it is too dark to read!" -Groucho Marx

Sunday, January 9, 2011

New edition to bowdlerize Huckleberry Finn

bowdlerize, v. 
to expurgate (a written work) by removing or modifying passages considered vulgar or objectionable.

Publisher's Weekly has decided that they will publish a sanitized version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn substituting "slave" for the "N-" word and also removing another inflammatory word, "Injun" for a more sanitized word.  Here is the rationale for why PW decided to bowdlerize this classic work of fiction:
Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a classic by most any measure—T.S. Eliot called it a masterpiece, and Ernest Hemingway pronounced it the source of "all modern American literature." Yet, for decades, it has been disappearing from grade school curricula across the country, relegated to optional reading lists, or banned outright, appearing again and again on lists of the nation's most challenged books, and all for its repeated use of a single, singularly offensive word: "nigger."

Twain himself defined a "classic" as "a book which people praise and don't read." Rather than see Twain's most important work succumb to that fate, Twain scholar Alan Gribben and NewSouth Books plan to release a version of Huckleberry Finn, in a single volume with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer...Marc Shultz for PW
To be fair, the article does go on to say that they are doing this so that schools and students will have an option, not because they want to completely do away with the original text penned by Twain.

Adam Kirsch writing for the New York Times asks us to recognize the time period, the audience, and culture of the day.  Should every work of fiction that offends someone be sanitized?
“Huckleberry Finn” was intended, of course, as an attack on racism. In its most famous scene, Huck hides the runaway slave Jim from a party of slave-hunters, and then feels guilty for having done so. “I knowed very well I had done wrong,” he says, though the reader, and Twain, know he has done right. It’s a searching demonstration of the way conscience is not just innate but also learned, and how confusing it can be to do right in a society dedicated to wrong ...
Yet all those racial epithets are a reminder that, when Twain wrote it, the audience he had in mind — the America for which he wrote — was segregated. He did not worry about constantly writing “nigger,” because he was writing about blacks, not for them. And for many readers, encountering classic literature means sometimes finding yourself excluded, or insulted, in this way. For blacks reading Twain, certainly, but also for Jews reading Shakespeare or Dickens, and for women reading, say, Plato (among countless others).-Adam Kirsch, NYT, 1/7/11
A good teacher should and will help students understand the value and purpose of the text and examine what was going on historically so that it makes sense.  Without using the language of the day, the story loses much of its impact.  An English teacher is teaching Huck Finn at my high school right now.  She decided it was important to start with a text other than Huck Finn and had students read parts of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass as an introduction to the topic of slavery and injustices.  Following that contextual introduction, the students jumped into Twain's masterful story.  Should we in education only teach things that are comfortable and non-offensive to everyone?

Syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts of the Miami Herald recently wrote that censoring Huck Finn is "wrong, wrong, wrong."  He understands why Publisher's Weekly is planning the new version of Huck Finn but believes "the fix is profoundly wrong."
In the first place, any work of art represents a series of conscious choices on the part of the artist – what color to paint, what note to play, what word to use – in that artist’s attempt to share what is in his or her soul. The audience is free to accept or reject those choices; it is emphatically not free to substitute its own.

In the second place, it is never a good idea to sugarcoat the past. The past is what it is, immutable and nonnegotiable. Even a cursory glance at the historical record will show that Twain’s use of the reprehensible word was an accurate reflection of that era.

So it would be more useful to have any new edition offer students context and challenge them to ask hard questions: Why did Twain choose that word? 
Finally, and in the third place, it is troubling to think the state of reading comprehension in this country has become this wretched,...that not only can our children not divine the nuances of a masterpiece, but that we will now protect them from having to even try.-Leonard Pitts
Pitts goes on to say that Huckleberry Finn is a funny story about a "runaway boy who comes to locate the humanity in a runaway black man and, in the process, vindicates his own." We, like Huck, have a lot to learn about others and about ourselves.  Erasing unpleasant aspects of our past, deprives others from learning in the future. 

Ray Bradbury reacted strongly when he learned that well-meaning editors were bowdlerizing his stories in an attempt to sanitize them for compilation volumes readily available in schools today.  He said the words he chose at the time were the words that he wanted and no one had the right to change or remove those words merely because they were offensive. "I will not go gently onto a shelf, degutted, to become a non-book."(Author's notes, Fahrenheit 451).

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of the best books ever written.  Why change a single word?

I think this whole kerfuffle would greatly amuse Mark Twain. Here's what he said when people tried to ban or censor his work in his day: "..I am tearfully afraid this noise is doing much harm. It has started a number of hitherto spotless people to reading Huck Finn, out of a natural human curiosity to learn what this is all about---people who had not heard of him before; people who will go to wreck and ruin now."-NY Times, 9/6/1902

Hopefully many people will dust off their old copies of Huck Finn and read it (or re-read) to see what this new fuss is all about.

2 comments:

  1. This is scary. Really scary. I cannot believe that anyone at a publishing house would even entertain the idea of censoring any book, especially when the author is not alive to approve or disprove of the process/ product. This is insanity.

    And, there are thousands of racist texts. Don't we have something to learn from conversation about books? Are we so ignorant that we will subscribe to the beliefs presented in a book and not use such language to check our moral compass? Crazy.

    Good topic for discussion, though. I'm going to ask my students what they think.

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  2. Wonderful points, Anne. I completely agree that censoring the book is a step in erasing an important lesson in history--that, as a society, we continue to witness intolerance & hate. Editing words doesn't destroy the problem, in fact it makes us all the more ignorant by taking away the need for discussion & understanding of its negative impact.

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