Revisionist classics, part 2

I’m somewhat surprised that nobody else brought this to my attention, since it’s right within my wheelhouse:

A new edition of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is causing controversy because of the removal of a racially offensive word. Twain scholar Alan Gribben says the use of the word “nigger” had prompted many US schools to stop teaching the classic. In his edition, Professor Gribben replaces the word with “slave” and also changes “injun” to “Indian”.

Come on, guys! What’s the point of having a loyal fan base if I have to get my own latté? You guys don’t remember when this exact issue came up in July with To Kill a Mockingbird? How about one of the first stories I cut my teeth on, when someone was trying to censor one of the Tintin books? Am I so easily forgotten?

Well have no fear, because this story has crossed my radar. An book publisher, under the advisement Auburn English professor Alan Gribben, is producing a new ‘sanitized’ version of Mark Twain’s classic novel. This particular book has long been a lightning rod for controversy because of the explicitly racist language contained therein, leading it to be banned from many schools.

One thing needs to be made clear off the bat: this is not censorship. Many people are prematurely crying ‘foul’, accusing the political correctness police of once again sacrificing art in the name of sensitive feelings. Of course, the ironies abound when we look at the kinds of people who oppose political correctness, and what kinds of things they are happy to censor. The book is in the public domain, which means the original language is still available to everyone. This is one publisher printing one version of one book with a handful of words changed. Anyone trying to turn this into a fight over free speech or changing historical documents is suiting up for the wrong battle.

That being said, there is a real fight here, and it’s worth exploring. Professor Gribben is a man who is deeply concerned about the fact that children aren’t being taught this classic of American literature because of a few words. There is much much more to the story of Huckleberry Finn than the two characters of Nigger Jim and Injun Joe. The book holds a mirror up to the attitudes of the times and forces the reader to confront the ugly truth about that period in American history. To refuse to teach the book in its entirety because people are squeamish about a few words is a completely flawed and illiberal approach to education. We can’t gloss over the rough parts of our past simply because we wish it had never happened. Teaching the book to children gives them an important contextual link to a point in human history where a great injustice was being practiced, unquestioned by mainstream society.

The other side of this argument is equally valid, though. Surely, by the same tokens described above, isn’t that exactly what Professor Gribben is doing by removing certain words from the work? Mark Twain was not a sloppy writer when it came to choosing his words. He didn’t put the words ‘nigger’ and ‘injun’ in this book out of either laziness or for some sort of perverse amusement; the words are specifically chosen to evoke an emotional reaction within the reader. By hitting readers with these words repeatedly (‘nigger’ apparently appears 219 times in the book), Twain allows the lexicon of the time to wash over them, forcing them to confront the constant, interminable racist attitudes that were the norm at the time. Once removed, these words lose their entire meaning. It then becomes like a ballet without music – missing an important and crucial element of the art.

In the tradition of George Orwell, I think that words are much more than placeholders for ideas. The proper combination of words arranged in a certain way, much like a properly-measured and compiled recipe, makes the finished product so much more than simply the sum of the constituent parts. Disturbing either the order or the content will forever change the outcome. In the case of this book, changing these words robs the work of an important tool in its arsenal. So much more than simply a story about a delinquent child and his rag-tag band of misfits, Huckleberry Finn is a work of art that uses a variety of devices to persuade the reader, essentially forcing them to confront the ugly truth about the history of North American racism.

The question we must resolve for ourselves is whether or not the same lesson can be imparted through the work with these words removed. After all, Professor Gribben’s intent is to encourage more children to read the book and learn from it – can they still learn the lesson without the full context? As I’ve said before, when we remove the word nigger from its historical context we simply lose any perspective of what it means,  making us far less reluctant to use it. I strongly disagree with Professor Gribben’s decision, since it will likely only accomplish the opposite of its intent. History needs to be taught unvarnished, and art should not be customized to fit the times.

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