January 05, 2011

New Huck Finn eliminates "Injun"

New edition of 'Huckleberry Finn' to lose the 'n' word

By Keith StaskiewiczWhat is a word worth? According to Publishers Weekly, NewSouth Books’ upcoming edition of Mark Twain’s seminal novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn will remove all instances of the “n” word—I’ll give you a hint, it’s not nonesuch—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.”

Unsurprisingly, there are already those who are yelling “Censorship!” as well as others with thesauruses yelling “Bowdlerization!” and “Comstockery!” Their position is understandable: Twain’s book has been one of the most often misunderstood novels of all time, continuously being accused of perpetuating the prejudiced attitudes it is criticizing, and it’s a little disheartening to see a cave-in to those who would ban a book simply because it requires context. On the other hand, if this puts the book into the hands of kids who would not otherwise be allowed to read it due to forces beyond their control (overprotective parents and the school boards they frighten), then maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to judge. It’s unfortunate, but is it really any more catastrophic than a TBS-friendly re-edit of The Godfather, you down-and-dirty melon farmer? The original product is changed for the benefit of those who, for one reason or another, are not mature enough to handle it, but as long as it doesn’t affect the original, is there a problem?
'Huck Finn' navigating choppy waters

By Martha T. Moore"When the younger reader is staring at that word five times on a given page and the instructor is saying, 'Mark Twain didn't mean this and you have to read it with an appreciation of irony,' you're asking a lot of a younger reader," Gribben says.

Readers will still be able to understand Twain's message without the blare of the offensive word drowning out the book's themes, Gribben says. "All I'm doing is taking out a tripwire and leaving everything else intact. All his sharp social critique, all his satirical jabs are intact. This novel cannot be made colorblind."

The book has been criticized for its language and characterizations since it was first published in 1885, says Barbara Jones of the American Library Association, which tracks how often books are banned from libraries. Huckleberry Finn was among the top five books challenged or banned during the 1990s.

Author Toni Morrison once wrote of the "fear and alarm" and "muffled rage" she felt during her first readings of it.

"Yeah, it's a tough book," says Millie Davis of the National Council for English Teachers. "Which is an excellent reason for teaching it."

Word is used 'for a reason'

Gribben's upcoming version of Huckleberry Finn, first reported in Publisher's Weekly, has educators and scholars readying the tar and feathers.

Twain once described the difference between the almost-right word and the right word as the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. "Slave," Twain scholars say, is a firefly.

Twain could have used other derogatory words of the period, such as "darky," but chose not to, they say.

"The word is there for a reason," says Jeff Nichols, the executive director of the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, Conn. "The word is terrible, it's hurtful, but it's there for a reason," to convey the language and attitudes of Missouri in the 1840s, in a book written in the 1880s when Jim Crow laws were being passed in the South to deprive blacks of their civil rights.

The new edition will also change "Injun Joe" to "Indian Joe" and "half-breed" to "half-blood."

"This is what's called a slippery slope," says Robert Hirst, editor of the Mark Twain Papers at the University of California-Berkeley. He says Huckleberry Finn is best taught in college, rather than high school.
A collection of links on the subject:

Voices:  The Huckleberry Finn Controversy

The final word:

Leave 'Huck' alone

Excising the 'N-word' does a disservice to students, since the language is very much part of the story and the history.Gribben has a point when he says that many modern school districts and teachers are reluctant to put "Huck Finn" on the curriculum because of its liberal use of the offensive word. His goal is to broaden the book's readership and acceptability by rendering it inoffensive. "Huck Finn" is No. 4 on the list of most-banned books in American schools, according to author Herbert N. Foerstal, and that's a shame, but attempting to sanitize it isn't the answer. Intelligent and sensitive discussion with students would be a better response.

Twain's masterwork is a moving reflection of attitudes in the pre-Civil War South (and of its author's postwar sensibilities, which were ahead of their time with regard to race but behind our own). It's the struggle of a white youth, Huck, to reconcile his recognition of the humanity and equality of an escaped slave with the views of a society that considers him little better than an animal and uses epithets to describe him. The language, then, is very much part of the story and the history. Trying to protect students from the full ugliness of racism by softening that language does a disservice to them, and it's all too easy to imagine the crimes against literature that would result if this kind of thing caught on. We hope nobody gives Gribben a copy of Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice," because the Bard's attitude toward Shylock the Jew was distastefully Elizabethan.
Comment:  Of course, Huck Finn has many problems besides the n-word. It's questionable whether it deserves to be called a masterpiece or taught at all. I'd say it definitely should be held until high school if not college.

For more on Huckleberry Finn, see Scholar:  Huck and Twain Were Racist and Is Huck Finn Racist? For more on "Injun," see Steele's Hypocrisy on Racial Slights and Twain Invented "Honest Injun"?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think people forget that the racism shows the time. And of course, people who complain about it being racist forget that the protagonist takes a stance against slavery, at one point risking his very soul to help Jim.

Of course, in modern America, words are more important than actions.