If I had to choose one novel above all others to represent the glories of American literature it would be The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It’s not perfect. Many critics, myself included, believe that Twain stumbles slightly when he reintroduces Tom Sawyer in the last quarter of the book. But, like the flaws purposely woven into Navaho rugs so as not to displease the spirits, the fact that this masterpiece has one or two dangling threads only serves to humanize Twain’s incandescent genius.
This week, however, week, NewSouth Books, a publisher based in Montgomery, Alabama, decided it was going to improve on Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” by removing some of the icky words notably found in the text.
First among those words is, of course, the “N” word. Nigger. This appears 219 times in Huck Finn. NewSouth has decided to replace the offending word with “slave.”
The publisher has also replaced “injun”—as in Injun Joe”— with “Indian.”
As my friend Tod Goldberg put it on Facebook: “In other news, the latest edition of The Things They Carried will no longer contain mention of the Vietnam war.”
NewSouth’s editing gambit is exactly that mind-bendingly stupid.
Another pal, David Ulin, had this to say in the LA Times:
To give their project credibility, NewSouth teamed with Alan Gribben, chair of the English department at Alabama’s Auburn University, to do the clean-up job. According to Publishers Weekly, Gribben was motivated by his own deep discomfort over the novel’s language and by the reactions of younger readers. “After a number of talks,” he told PW, “I was sought out by local teachers, and to a person, they said we would love to teach … ‘Huckleberry Finn,’ but we feel we can’t do it anymore. In the new classroom, it’s really not acceptable.”
I agree: The N-word is not acceptable -- although I’m not sure “slave” is much of an improvement, with its unthinking conflation of servitude and race. Like professor Gribben, I’ve discussed “Huckleberry Finn” in the classroom, and it is always difficult and awkward to work around that word. This, however, is precisely why it needs to remain part of our experience of “Huckleberry Finn.”
Literature, after all, is not there to reassure us; it’s supposed to reveal us, in all our contradictory complexity. The fact that it makes us uncomfortable is part of the point — like all great art, it demands that we confront our half-truths and self-deceptions, the justifications and evasions by which we measure out our daily lives.
Huck is a perfect case in point, a rebel who can’t reconcile his love for the escaped slave Jim with his cultural indoctrination, who goes back and forth about whether his companion is fully a human being.
“All right, then, I’ll go to hell,” he announces when he finally decides the matter. The choice of words is telling, since in choosing not to return Jim to slavery, Huck articulates the central moral argument of the book. This is the point Twain is making, that there is a difference between custom and conscience, between social convention and the ethics of the individual. At the heart of this is the issue of language, the words we use and how we use them, and what they tell us about the reality we construct.
The passage below from Huck Finn—that Ulin quotes in part— is one of the most important in American letters. To remove the “N word because of its obvious offensiveness is to willfully deny the central point that Twain was making about our nation’s horrifically injurious past in which a boy could, no kidding, believe that he would be condemned to hell for considering a black man a person.
Whitewashing that historically truthful moment in Twain’s book is what causes the real damage-–not the appropriate and contextual use of the wounding word in question.
So I was full of trouble, full as I could be; and didn’t know what to do. At last I had an idea; and I says, I’ll go and write the letter- and then see if I can pray. Why, it was astonishing, the way I felt as light as a feather, right straight off, and my troubles all gone. So I got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote:
Miss Watson your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send. HUCK FINN
I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking- thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me, all the time; in the day, and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him agin in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had smallpox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around, and see that paper.
It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
“All right, then, I’ll go to hell”- and tore it up.
Yes, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn draws blood.
It’s supposed to.
PS: Both the NY Times and the LA Times have editorials on the matter in their Thursday editions.
AND IN OTHER NEWS….DR. ATUL GWANDE ON SOLITARY CONFINEMENT AS TORTURE
Gawande’s 2009 New Yorker article on the topic, “Hellhole” is important and unforgettable. He recaps and expands on the issue on Democracy Now.
OHIO PRISONERS GO ON HUNGER STRIKE AFTER 17-YEARS IN SOLITARY CONFINEMENT
And while we’re on the subject:
… Four prisoners at the supermax Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown have gone on a hunger strike to protest their solitary confinement. Their only demand: that they be moved to the state’s Death Row.
The prisoners—Bomani Shakur, Siddique Abdullah Hasan, Jason Robb and Namir Abdul Mateen—were sentenced to death for their involvement in the 1993 prison uprising in Lucasville, Ohio, in which a guard and several inmates were killed. They have now been in 23-hour-a-day solitary for more than 17 years. Based on the nature of their crime, they are being denied the privileges given others on Death Row in Ohio, and condemned to permanent isolation.
The Youngstown Vindicator has the more complete story.