Yes, we know we said that we were done with One Man’s Tofu, and yes, we went on about how “the search compels us” and how “flogging a dead horse” has “never been our style”. But as is typical, just when we slam the door shut once and for all, someone comes knocking again and we are forced to answer. In the final analysis, probably the only thing we know for sure is that the capacity for some moron out there to provoke our outrage will always exist.
It is this one universal constant that is on our mind as we return to the keyboard today.
Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is probably the author’s greatest literary achievement in a lifetime of great literary achievements, and may very well be the greatest novel ever produced in the history of American letters.
That’s some pretty serious hyperbole, to be sure, but we feel as though we’re on pretty solid ground when we say it. It was Twain, after all, who showed the way for all of the great American writers who followed. He redefined what storytelling was, and altered the literary landscape in ways that are incalculable. If Arianna Huffington had been around in the 19th century, she’d surely have called Twain a “game changer”, if we may put it in terms so grotesque and obnoxious that even we feel our gag reflex being triggered.
It isn’t as though it’s the first time today that we’ve gagged.
We learned today from Publisher’s Weekly that a new edition of Huckleberry Finn is about to be published. Ordinarily, that kind of announcement wouldn’t cause much of a stir. There have been dozens of editions of Huckleberry Finn published over the years, and so another one usually isn’t news.
Huckleberry Finn, it turns out, has been disappearing from public school libraries and required reading lists in recent years. Teachers and school administrators (brace yourself) have been banishing it from the stacks because of all of the 1830s Missouri language that permeates the prose, which they feel gives the book an overall racist tone.
Consequently, Atlanta-based NewSouth Books (being from Atlanta is always an omnious sign) has announced that their forthcoming edition of Huckleberry Finn will be cleansed of all references to the “n-word”. We presume you know that we’re not talking about “nincompoop”, but we can’t be sure because we’re not even allowed to use the word in the context of referring to the word itself.
We are not talking about “nincompoop”.
The “n-word” that we’re talking about is an ugly word, after all. And its use in a pejorative sense is the mark of a serious asshole. There can be no argument about that.
But you don’t necessarily have to use the “n-word” in a pejorative sense to be serious asshole.
Alan Gribben, Twain scholar, and head of the English department at Auburn University is overseeing the release of the NewSouth edition, which will replace all 219 references to the “n-word” with “slave”. And in a miasma of proactive zeal, the word “injun” (as in “Injun Joe”) will also be excised from the new edition, even though “injun” apparently has not yet been drummed out of the vernacular in the same way that the “n-word” has.
Gribben says, “This is not an effort to render Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn colorblind. Race matters in these books. It’s a matter of how you express that in the 21st century”.
Yes, but Twain wasn’t living in the 21st century. The world in which Twain lived, and in which Huck lived, was very different from the one in which we live today. In trying to whitewash the language of Huckleberry Finn, a certain truth about the novel and the times from which it sprang take a tremendous beating.
After being asked by NewSouth to produce the new edition and to write its introduction, Gribben went on a speaking tour of libraries across Alabama. He says, “After a number of talks, I was sought out by local teachers, and to a person they said we would love to teach this novel, and Huckleberry Finn, but we feel we can’t do it anymore. In the new classroom, it’s really not acceptable”.
The “new classroom”?
Would that be the same classroom that has been producing test scores that have been on a steady decline since 1970? That have made America one of the least literate societies among the western democracies? That has fallen so far behind the classrooms of China and India in producing the doctors, engineers, and scientists necessary for global economic success in the 21st century that we’re only a generation away from irrevocably ceding our dominance as the richest and most powerful country in the world?
That “new classroom”?
But we digress …
Of course racism pervades Huckleberry Finn. The book is a reflection its time. You can’t just sponge away the racist elements of Huckleberry Finn any more than you can remove German antisemitism (or American anti-Japanese racism) from World War II. How are we supposed to teach kids the difference between right and wrong when we deny that wrong even exists? Or worse, make wrong more cuddly by removing its inhumanity? Racism is wrong and it’s ugly, and kids respond to ugly. Kids remember ugly. And no kid wants to be ugly.
Changing the “n-word” to “slave” completely removes the inhuman racial component of American slavery and turns it into a socio-economic injustice. Which it was, but as sins go, it was the more venial of the two. And it wasn’t the sin that nearly tore this country apart trying to cleanse from its soul.
To change Twain’s language to reflect our current sensibilities is a lie. Lies and racism spring from the same poisoned well. We drink from it at our peril.
Just like the overuse of antibiotics and antibacterial disinfectants have brought about a generation of young people with weakened immune systems and have fostered the evolution of superbugs for which medical science has no ready defenses, this business of purifying our language to edit out everything that is hateful and hurtful may very well, and in spite of the best of intentions, produce people with no sense of what is and isn’t wrong, what is and isn’t ugly, and what is and isn’t inhuman. And in the process foster the growth of a new kind of superhate that may be civil in its discourse, but reprehensible in its actions.
And why stop at language?
If we’re going to revise Huckleberry Finn in order to appeal to 21st-century sensibilities, why not make Huck a child detective, and Injun Joe (excuse us, Joseph, the Native American, not to be confused with Hinmahtoo-yahlatkekt of the Nez Perce) a sorcerer who has a magical tipi that allows him to transport himself to other dimensions. In his pursuit, Huck builds an inter-dimensional machine of his own and travels to the fifth dimension where he learns a thing or two about California soul.
And there can be avatars, too.
And maybe a giant purple wombat named Smegma.
The kids will love it.
Exactly who do these misguided academics think they are, tampering with the work of Mark Twain, anyway? This is nothing short of the desecration of one of the great works of American literature.
You can’t just change the language and make the idea go away.
Man’s inhumanity won’t be extinguished if you only believe.
You can’t tinker-bell it out of existence.
You can’t turn Pol Pot into Peter Pan.
But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Alan Gribben he’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.
— Huck Finn
Run, Huck, run …