Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn" is Given a "Whitewash".

"Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot." (Mark Twain)

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  ..."Displace one note and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase and the structure would fall..."  (Salieri in "Amadeus" by Peter Shaffer)

Some works of art  have achieved a certain fragile perfection that is ruined if they are even slightly altered. Other, more modest works still have an integrity that should not be meddled with. 

For years, I have loathed the following words:  "This film has been edited for content"....

Next month, an Alabama Publisher will release a version of Mark Twain's undisputed classic "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn".  They are promoting the book to be used in schools that had banned it due to language.  The new book has removed an offending word, used repeatedly, and substituted it with the word "slave."

Okay, I will use the offending word only once (it even looks ugly on the page)...."nigger".

The odd thing is that I am personally uncomfortable using the word in any context.  The irony of my hesitation, while defending its use by another author, makes me laugh with some embarrassment.

Such is the power of words.  Which is why we need to be careful to understand their connotations, and the deliberate choices a gifted author makes to enrich a work and give it shades of meaning.  The well-intentioned substitution of a more "benign" word can destroy a work's important subtext, and eliminate the very reasons why it has endured in the first place.

In other words, a "cleaned-up" version of "Huck Finn" is still a good yarn, appropriate for a grade-school or even a high school reader, but it is no longer suitable for academic, critical study. 

Painful as history might be, it's no use to whitewash literature and deny the existence of troubling reality as reflected through language, especially language used as an artistic and social comment, or as a snapshot of the society in which a work was created. 

The "N-word" (as I will now refer to it) is loaded with pain, anger and utter contempt.  However, use of the word was less contentious in Mark Twain's day.  Reading "Huck Finn" with its language intact might make for a richer and more effective educational experience.  

Students might consider the evolution of the word; WHY it was more acceptable then; how it has grown in volatility; and why a segment of the population has commandeered it.  That leads to a meaningful discussion about an unfortunate period of history, and what the repercussions are today. 

I think that would be impossible without the actual text, and its ability to create tension in the reader through its language.

Perhaps "Huck Finn"  is not appropriate to teach at all grade levels or in all schools; perhaps some teachers ought not attempt it in their classrooms before dealing with their own discomfort. 

Fortunately the original is still everywhere, and easy to find, in libraries (that haven't banned it), bookstores, or on-line.  It would be great if this "controversy" introduced the book to new readers, or prompted others to read it again. 

However, the new version will soon be out there.  I wish they would follow the example of some TV stations, and put the following on the cover: "This Book Has Been Edited for Content".

FIRST POSTSCRIPT : Film Critic Roger Ebert put forth a controversial Tweet upon hearing of the alteration of Twain's book, claiming he "would rather be called a 'n....' than a 'slave' ".  He soon recanted this, after a firestorm of angry re-tweets, realizing that he is "not likely to be called either", and that he should have "shut the f--- up".  Maybe Roger was careless, and his comment a little misguided, but I give him credit for his passion.

SECOND (AND FINAL) POSTSCRIPT:  My guess is that Mark Twain himself would have been delighted with this controversy. In fact, the book has been getting banned from the get-go:

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was first published in 1884. Mark Twain wrote to Charles Webster on March 18, 1885: "The Committee of the (Concord) Public Library ... (has) expelled Huck from their library as 'trash and suitable only for the slums.' That will sell 25,000 copies for us sure."

In 1902, the Brooklyn Public Library banned The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with the statement that "Huck not only itched but he scratched," and that he said "sweat" when he should have said "perspiration."


  1. EXACTLY. I feel like people who demand the book be banned for language is...missing the point. Twain himself was anti-slavery, pro-civil rights, and the novel is a satire. Change that word, you might as well re-write the whole book in The Queen's English.

  2. This is a tough call, partly due to the incendiary nature of the n-word, especially in the US.

    I fully agree with your statements about how to study the novel. Historical context is key and to fully appreciate the prose you need it exactly as written.

    That said I wouldn't like my young neices and nephews to read the book and use the language because they're too young to understand it.

  3. Ben, I see your argument. In a lot of ways, releasing an edited version of the book more suitable for children is no different than offering an edited-for-TV film so that all ages can enjoy it.

    "Huck Finn" presents an interesting dilemma. I would recommend it to children only if the reading was supervised. Besides the language, a lot happens in the book that might confuse or upset sensitive younger readers.