Right now America is discussing Huckleberry Finn and what Mark Twain’s intentions were at the time he wrote it.  I love it.

An honest debate over this issue began on Facebook with some friends.  It then continued in the form of a discussion at a party.

In the midst of the debate, the group came to a realization that, of the six of us involved in this conversation, only Subway Dude had read Huck Finn within the last 20 years.  As a result, we all (with the exception of SD) resolved to read the novel and get together in a month to take up this issue again.

We can only hope that Americans throughout the country are having similar discussions, and that this debate will encourage my fellow citizens to pick up the book again.

Professor Gribben

For those of you who have not been following this affair, Professor Alan Gribben of Auburn University has edited the NewSouth Edition of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  The editors decided to eliminate two racial slurs.  One of which is the dreaded “n-word.”  Although just about everyone with a keyboard has weighed in on this topic, Gribben (a Twain scholar for the past 40 years) can best describe why this was done:

We may applaud Twain’s ability as a prominent American literary realist to record the speech of a particular region during a specific historical era, but abusive racial insults that bear distinct connotations of permanent inferiority nonetheless repulse modern-day readers. Twain’s two books do not deserve ever to join that list of literary “classics” he once humorously defined as those “which people praise and don’t read,” yet the long-lofty status of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn has come under question in recent decades. In this connection, it seems relevant to remember that Twain habitually read aloud his day’s writings to an audience gathered on the porch of his summer retreat overlooking Elmira, New York, watching and listening for reactions to each manuscript page. He likewise took cues about adjusting his tone from lecture platform appearances, which provided him with direct responses to his diction. As a notoriously commercial writer who watched for every opportunity to enlarge the mass market for his works, he presumably would have been quick to adapt his language if he could have foreseen how today’s audiences recoil at racial slurs in a culturally altered country.

Gribben further explains:

Through a succession of firsthand experiences, this editor gradually concluded that an epithet-free edition of Twain’s books is necessary today. For nearly forty years I have led college classes, bookstore forums, and library reading groups in detailed discussions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in California, Texas, New York, and Alabama, and I always recoiled from uttering the racial slurs spoken by numerous characters, including Tom and Huck. I invariably substituted the word “slave” for Twain’s ubiquitous n-word whenever I read any passages aloud. Students and audience members seemed to prefer this expedient, and I could detect a visible sense of relief each time, as though a nagging problem with the text had been addressed. Indeed, numerous communities currently ban Huckleberry Finn as required reading in public schools owing to its offensive racial language and have quietly moved the title to voluntary reading lists. The American Library Association lists the novel as one of the most frequently challenged books across the nation.

Thus, the NewSouth Edition will presumably have the effect of making Twain’s works more accessible to American schoolchildren.

It is important to note that this is simply one edition of these novels.  The original text will still be available for all to read.

A significant argument cited by those opposed to this revision is the “slippery slope” position.  Under that premise, if we start selectively editing works of fiction with offensive passages, this will eventually lead to a wholesale “literary cleansing” of passages of works deemed “offensive” to one group or another.  “What will be next?” critics ask.  J.D. Salinger?  Ernest Hemingway?  F. Scott Fitzgerald?

The counter-argument is, of course, free choice.  All notable works of literature are subject to new editions from time to time.  New versions of The Illiad and The Odyssey have been published in recently years shedding new light on these texts.

The fact that new versions are being offered signals that the work is worthy of being preserved and reread in a new light.  However, no new edition ever seeks to entirely supplant the author’s original text.  The reader is simply free to accept or reject the fresh take upon the original.

It’s called the marketplace of ideas, folks.  It’s not something to be feared.

Nonetheless, many critics of Gribben’s edition have offered the important argument that Samuel Clemens choose his words carefully and deliberately.  Several African American scholars have also come forward to suggest that the NewSouth edition is another example of mainstream America seeking to sweep an ugly past under the rug of history.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens a.k.a. Mark Twain

While I agree that Twain was a very deliberate author, he is also one of America’s clearest writers.  I submit to you that changing a racial epithet freighted with explosive meaning in 21st century America will not dilute any of the points that Mark Twain raised in these masterful works of fiction.

The n-word is a tough one.  There is no other word like it in the English language.  When spoken by one black man to another, the word can evoke kinship and common struggle.  When uttered by a white man to a black man, it can ignite violence.

It is true that this phenomenon exists among other ethnic or cultural groups (e.g., someone of Italian descent may call another “Guinea”, or one gay man may call another “faggot”).  However, no word in America is more explosive or laden with sad history than the n-word.

Langston Hughes

In 1940, the Harlem renaissance writer, Langston Hughes, made a plea to eliminate that word entirely from all literature:

“Ironically or seriously, of necessity for the sake of realism, or impishly for the sake of comedy, it doesn’t matter . . . [African Americans or Black Americans] do not like it in any book or play whatsoever, be the book or play ever so sympathetic.”

Unfortunately, succeeding generations of writers and artists have not heeded Hughes’ call.  Rap music is the most salient example of this.

Perhaps I am too close to this issue.

I keep picturing a teenage Island Boy sitting in an English class in high school.  He is the only dark-skinned kid in the room.  Although he will not be raised in African American culture, he will certainly not be immune from the n-word and its noxious effects when spoken in a hateful manner.

Huckleberry Finn in the original form will give teachers and schoolmates license to use that word in an academic environment.

While this will not as bad as say, growing up as a malnourished orphan in an unsafe place, it will leave lasting imprints.  Not necessarily the good kind.

Not necessarily the kind that Mark Twain envisioned as he sat in his octogonal study in Elmira carefully drafting.

— The Major


One response to this post.

  1. Thank you for the thoughtful summary of this topic. I’ve offered a counter-argument on my blog at http://ravenhost.blogspot.com/2011/01/convergence-of-twain.html.


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