January 17, 2011

Why not rewrite Twain's books?

Apparently the biggest objection to Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer is that black children are horrified and traumatized when they read the n-word. I haven't heard of white children being traumatized by this word, and it didn't traumatize me when I read Huck Finn in high school. Nor have I heard of black or white children being traumatized by the words "Injun" and "half-breed."

This suggests a better solution than simply sanitizing the books of every objectionable ethnic slur in them. The publisher could develop a black edition without the words offensive to blacks and an Indian edition without the words offensive to Indians. If the books have any words offensive to whites, a white edition could exclude them.

This is a silly solution, but it points to the silliness of the proposed solution. One silly solution deserves another.

Slurs out but racism remains

The real problem isn't that Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer are great books except for the ethnic slurs. Rather, they're steeped in the racism of the era. If the publisher really wanted to address this problem, it would rewrite all the racist passages. Eliminate Jim's phony dialect and superstitious ignorance and Injun Joe's murderous savagery, among other things.

This is why critics have said replacing the slurs is a slippery slope. Where do you stop if you're really trying to protect the children? Why is it wrong to expose them to racist words but not to racist ideas?

Schools have a few ways to deal with Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. The options include 1) teach kids to deal with the ugly truths in them, or 2) don't teach them until kids are mature enough to handle them. Either option seems better than using sanitized books.

For more on the subject, see Mark Twain, Indian Hater and Is Huck Finn Racist?


Burt said...

Twain should not be rewritten. He is simply a writer during the time he lived that used words to express a story.

With all the hip-hop music repeatedly ranting and shouting the "N" word, how is it okay for "anyone" to use that word.

I have never heard natives call each other "injun"!

I think American writers like Baum, Twain and other racially ignorant populist were and are here to affirm America's lack of knowledge in recognizing other races unique cultures and diversity, something Americans love to preach, but refuse to practice.

Anonymous said...

The real problem is that you can't just revise the racism of the past to make room for the present.

And one change leads to another which eventually leads to what us otaku call macekre. That is, revising the work so much that you lose its original artistic merit. (If you've seen a lot of anime for children, and then watched those same works in Japanese, you know macekre.)

Even worse than that, you run into the possibility of removing racism from American history textbooks.

I personally am glad there are so many MSTs of "The Piasa Bird" available. "The Piasa Bird" has no literary merit, of course; it's a Power Rangers fanfiction with a huge Mary Sue. But "The Piasa Bird" also shows that racism existed in the 90s. These people who would not admit to seeing other races as inferior, yet still did so. (Half the fic is Gonterman saying he's not racist, he's just tired of hearing about slavery in American history class.)

Glenda said...

I agree, it was his time and his life as was seen through his eyes. America has just become intolerant of anything to do with Blacks or Indians. I am part Cherokee and I don't take Twain's books to be anything other than the works of a great man in his time and lifestylke.