Literary Quote of the Month

“For poems are not, as people think, simply emotions (one has emotions early enough)—they are experiences,” … Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Rewriting History One Word at a Time... Huckleberry Finn in the 21st Century

"Censorship is telling a man he can't have a steak just because a baby can't chew it." ... Mark Twain on the Censorship of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Since its publication in 1885, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been the center of numerous censorship challenges. Originally the objections to the book were for the "coarse language", and the use of slang throughout the book, which was called demeaning and damaging. Even favorite author Louisa May Alcott publicly criticized Mr. Twain saying, that if "Mr. Clemens cannot think of something better to tell our pure-minded lads and lasses he had best stop writing for them." But soon the focus of all the objections turned from the coarse language, to one particular word - the "n" word. The "n" word is without question offensive, but taking the "n" word out of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn doesn't change the fact that racism existed, or that that was the language of the day. Instead of ignoring our past, and Huckleberry Finn is America's past, wouldn't it be more beneficial to open up a dialogue about the wrongs of the past?! Putting The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn back in the classroom gives teachers and parents an opportunity to address the objectionable language and racism, to teach the history of that Jim Crow era and to help a child to understand how the attitudes expressed at the time are wrong.

Rewrite Huckleberry Finn? really? Are we gonna take the Holocaust out of Anne Frank's diary too? Or maybe rewrite Lolita so shes 18 yrs old? ... @Jury_Jury Jackson Harris comment on Twitter

Ernest Hemingway called The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn "the best book we've had. The book where all American writing comes from." T.S. Eliot called it a "masterpiece", and Twain scholar Alan Gribben's intensions seem to be to get Huckleberry Finn read by more children who otherwise would not be "allowed", by rewriting the text of Huckleberry Finn with a less hurtful word. But at what cost?

"For a single word to form a barrier, it seems such an unnecessary state of affairs," he said.

Is this censorship or compromise? I say censorship. What do you say? Jamelle Bouie, in an online article for The Atlantic entitled Taking the History Out of Huck Finn, writes: "erasing "n*****" from Huckleberry Finn—or ignoring our failures—doesn't change anything. It doesn't provide racial enlightenment, or justice, and it won't shield anyone from the legacy of slavery and racial discrimination. All it does is feed the American aversion to history and reflection." I couldn't have said it better myself.

The "n" word appears 219 times in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and NewSouth books is initially printing 7500 copies of Mark Twain's Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: The NewSouth Edition, which will change the "n" word to "slave". NewSouth books is not looking to ban the original version, just add an option to those who find the original version uncomfortable to read. Looking at it in a different light, is it better to change "the word" and have schools embrace the book in their reading programs again or dig our heels in in the name of justice for the authors work? Maybe just by changing one word, a new dialogue will open up...

2 comments:

La Coccinelle said...

It's censorship. Slavery happened. The n-word was used. Changing things to pretend it all never happened doesn't benefit anybody.

(I'm actually a little bit surprised that the word appears 219 times. I read Huckleberry Finn and quite enjoyed it. I remember the word was in there, but I guess it fit in the context of the story because I didn't find it particularly bothersome or excessive. Then again, I was an adult when I read it, so I already knew about the controversy and wasn't surprised to see the word in there.)

Suzanne said...

Hi La Coccinelle,
I read Huckleberry Finn as a teenager a LONG long time ago and don't remember any big controversy when reading it. I do intend to read it again as an adult. Originally it was intended as an adult read, and you not really "noticing" the n-word, really says it all -and you got it right- the word "fit in the context of the story".

Thank you for sharing your thoughts! I enjoyed reading your comment, especially your point that "Changing things to pretend it all never happened doesn't benefit anybody."

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