Wednesday, January 5, 2011

NewSouth Books Censors Mark Twain

The world is full of short-sighted morons. You know that, right? Especially when it comes racial issues in literature. I was once evaluated, by a student in one of my college classes, as a racist. Why? I taught The Sun Also Rises, in which the narrator uses the "n" word; therefore, I was a racist for having chosen the book. Yeah -- slightly flawed logic.

A teacher I worked with informed me, today, that a librarian that he worked with in a school whose demographics were 100% African-American refused to have any book in the school library that contained the "n" word. While I get the sentiment, one wonders where that leaves, say, Richard Wright.

And now, the unspeakable is happening:

NewSouth Books’ upcoming edition of Mark Twain’s seminal novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn will remove all instances of the “n” word . . . present in the text and replace it with "slave." The new book will also remove usage of the word "Injun." The effort is spearheaded by Twain expert Alan Gribben, who says his PC-ified version is not an attempt to neuter the classic but rather to update it. “Race matters in these books,” Gribben told PW. “It’s a matter of how you express that in the 21st century.”
It's this simple: "Twain expert Alan Gribben" ought to be presented with the backs of his colleagues in the literary community. This is the most grotesque and disturbing thing I have seen in my years in letters. He ought to be ashamed to show his face in a university setting. He is censoring Twain. Period. There is no good editorial or critical reason for the change in Twain's work.

It is amazing to me that a credentialed scholar would either ignore, be completely unaware of or be completely unconcerned that Twain's book is a product of the time period in which it was written. To update it is to invalidate it. Twain was a commenter on the America of his time; he wasn't Shakespeare, for whom fanciful and accidental anachronism were standard fare. My high school students understand that, for the love God. "Update," my ass.

Let's face it, the "n" word is disgusting. It is charged with hate and condescension. It is dehumanizing, most of all. But if people are offended by Twain's masterpiece, they can choose not to read it. And they should realize that an author's use of a word isn't necessarily an indication that he condones its use in reality. (Plenty of writers have written about murder -- does that make them sociopaths?) And any mediocre teacher can make it clear to his or her classes that the novel criticizes racism. Taking out the "n" word out is nothing more than giving readers an excuse not to think.

But, damn it, readers should choose for themselves. And if school kids read this censored edition, they are being lied to.

If people choose to read this edition of the book, they choose not to read Twain's book. Race is such a pervasive theme in the book, the loss of the "n" word alters it significantly. Using "Slave Jim" is nothing short of asinine. It isn't even a parallel transcription. If Gribben thinks "slave" and "nigger" mean the same thing, maybe he isn't sensitive enough to the impact of that word. Maybe he is making light of what the word means -- and meant. Maybe he uses the word around the house himself -- I mean, if it only means "slave," what's the big deal? (Notice how, up until this point, I have use "the 'n' word"? I used the full word here for impact with my point; while I think there is no need to be egregious with it, I recognize the need to use the word in this instance, much like a better writer might have.)

There is probably some smokescreen set-up in Gribben's argument in which he professes that the "n" word meant something closer to the unbiased noun "slave" back then. Based on what I understand of history, that is an invalid argument. Oh, and for the benefit of those who read blogs with the argumentative gun cocked and ready to fire [whispers behind hand]: I wasn't really asserting that Gribben uses the word in his house. I was exaggerating to make a point.

Friends, don't buy this edition; don't teach from it. Tell others not to buy it. Political correctness can be bad enough. This is the deliberate mutilation of a work of art. This is censorship. This is someone telling you what you should read. This is someone stealing Twain, your rightful property as an American, from you.

Worst of all, this is a disservice to the African-American community. White America needs to be reminded of the racist attitudes that existed (and still exist) in America. Covering up the use of the "n" word is an implication that things were not so bad. They were so bad. If they were not, Toni Morrison wouldn't have presented us with her soul-wrenching book Beloved. If we sugar-coat or censor the literary record of racism, we are denying it.

Once, a parent came in to school to complain that I taught Beloved to a class of AP English seniors. He, in reference to the horrid scenes in the book that depicted the suffering of the slaves -- especially Sethe -- said, "I sent my kid to a Catholic school so he wouldn't have to see this sort of thing." I responded by telling him: "I think it is our duty as a Catholic school to show your kid this sort of thing. This is how bad it was to be a slave. It wasn't sweaty brows in the field and singing spirituals at night. It wasn't 'Yes, Massah -- chuckle, chuckle.' It was rape, dehumanization and emasculation. It was constant suffering to the point that a mother would kill her baby to avoid having her returned to slavery."

You don't "update" the truth. You don't hide it. And you don't excuse people from confronting a tough word in fear it will hide the real meaning of the book from them. People need to be trusted to do the intellectual work themselves, not protected by Big Brother in the form of a publisher.

Huck Finn is what it is (unless some vandal like Gribben gets his hands on it). The only way to move away from our racist past is to face it. There is more to that novel than one word, yes. But that one word is a reflection of racism-infused times -- times best left behind, Twain would agree -- times in a history we are doomed to repeat if we wipe out evidence of its existence.

Teachers: teach your kids what Twain was really up to. Readers: think when you read. The rest will work itself out. The American audience doesn't need self-righteous academics and publishers to protect it. This edition is insulting and academically unethical. Twain would be disgusted.

Note: I didn't forget about "Injun" being left out. That is even more ridiculous. It's mere dialectical pronunciation. As far as I know, it was never a "slur" even though the Native Americans were (and still are) some of the most mistreated people in American history.


  1. I was wondering what you'd think of this. I couldn't agree more, Alan Gribben is a self-righteous ass, trying to turn Huck Finn into some royal nonesuch.

  2. Really? this is really happening? How in the hell is someone going to go and change an american classic. Yes the use of the "n" word is wrong and I don't condone it but did anyone think about how this would change future history. This is like the question "if you could go back in a time machine what would you change?" Except in this case this guy is doing it from his corner office in his house. We also have to look at the time period when the book was written slavery was still an active thing in this country. Mark Twain grew up in the 1800s, the "n" word was thrown around so loosely back then because it was a different time in history. Students should be reading people like Huck Finn, and Of Mice and Men(yes I do know this book was written by Steinbeck and not Twain) and books like that. You can not censor American history, you know the saying history repeat itself, well if we keep censoring things and not seeing and past actions,and racial slurs were used so often and so harshly in the past, history will repeat itself with a vengence.

  3. This is "Thank You For Smoking" in real life. impressive. Think for yourselves...please.

  4. Thanks -- and thanks for checking in. A comparison I didn't think of!

  5. I saw this on the news ticker tape and shook my head. I agree wholeheartedly. Absurdity. I'd be interested in seeing how he'd edit tales of the holocaust. I'm sure it would be equally offensive.

  6. One professor whose blog I read said "Hemingway is next." He sees the line about Jake ("he was superior and Jewish") being changed to: "he was superior and religious."

  7. Someone posted somewhere on this, sorry I can't recall where at the moment, that at root this was about not trusting students to be smart enough to understand that Twain was not supporting racism but satirizing it. Clearly Alan Gribben hasn't figured that one out.

    Your analysis of matters here is spot on.

  8. Thanks, Art -- and another thing I have always thought about the book is that I don't really see why people feel so obligated to teach it to kids.It really isn't necessarily a book for kids simply because it is about a kid. So I don't really buy Gribben's other argument that he is cleaning it up so districts will use it. Not necessary. I read it for the firs time in grad school and, so, really appreciated it.

  9. The idea of re-writing literature really turns my stomach. It's defacing art, plain and simple, just like airbrushing a nude Giovanni. And the idea that people have about "protecting" young people from being exposed to words such as this is one of many examples of where people think they should control what others think, learn, see, and eat. It's unbelievably condescending and anti-libertarian. The quiet majority needs to stand up against these encroachments.

  10. Well, put, indeed. The editor claims this change makes the audience more comfortable, but my argument is that I don't think Twain wanted them to be. Thanks for the comment!