Removing the N-Words so as Not to Offend, or The " ew" Adve tures of Huckleberry Fi

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Summary: A new edition of Huck Finn by NewSouth Books attempts to swap out the old racial n-word for another. Some small outcry has been heard about this, but what really does it all mean? Can changing out a word change a book, or the past? Will such an edit even be noticed? It's complicated.

BLOT: (04 Jan 2011 - 03:56:29 PM)

Removing the N-Words so as Not to Offend, or The " ew" Adve tures of Huckleberry Fi

Spotted this on Nick Mamatas's blog the other day (note: his blog is one of the reasons to check out Livejournal): a Southern professor teams up with a Southen publisher to produce a version of non-Southern classic in which a racially perjorative epithet is removed and replaced by a class description status. To put this in regular expression, aka Vim terms, s/nigger/slave. That was a geek joke with a racial slur, how about that? At any rate, Mamatas is referring to a Publishers Weekly article about NewSouth Books [the publishers] and Alan Gribben [English prof at Auburn University of Montgomery, or AUM to you local yokels] teeming up to edit/write and publish a Bowderlized edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in which the term "nigger" is switched out for "slave" (and presumably similar words, because dammit, if this is simply a ctrl+f and replace deal, that's just lazy). There is some, not a lot, of outcry over this, partially because the Internet does not pick and choose its battles so much as runs around like an imbecilic child with a blind fold on and waits until it hits a wall before screeching and throwing a full tantrum. Partially because we are talking about a book that has long been hailed as one of the Great American Novels—along with The Great Gatsby and Moby Dick—but really people only read the first line of every paragraph in their high school reading course and even then hated it and felt it was a waste of time. That's right, ladies and gentlemen, we are talking about a classic. And as has been said but some wise man or another: "A classic is something everyone wants to have read but nobody wants to read." In other words, don't let the boredom hit your yawn on the way out.

Now, for those of us who do care, there may or may not be a big deal here. I'm anti-censorship. However, I know and you know that had Gribben taken Huck Finn's story, find-and-replaced every instance of Jim with "dead Jim" and every instance of "nigger" with "zombie"*, not only would Gribben not be getting spat at by small but angry corners of the Internet, he might even be getting an awesome movie deal from it. We are talking about a public domain work that has long entered, saturated, and slowly started seeping back out of public conscious. Chewed up, digested, and shaped in numerous other forms. There is no way that a language-cleaned version of the book is going to replace the actual book (can this even be the first such edited copy? Surely not). The original is still going to be around, through numerous free downloads and cheap editions, while a nearly $25 hardcover will sit on a small handful of bookshelves and might be read with sighs of relief by the kind of folk who rent edited movies from Blockbuster. Maybe I am wrong. Maybe this will get out, catapult Huck Finn to the hero of the new generation, and greatly outpace all previous editions. I just don't think it will ever matter. Those who love the lit will teach teach the real lit, and those who do not, would have just skipped over it, anyhow. Kind of like the graphic novel classics. They are often inane and far too childish to represent the real classics they pretend to be, but they are not there for those who are going to read the classics.

Never mind whether or not a book that only slightly touches upon the actual lives of whites or blacks in the pre-Civil War era Missouri is really the book you want to read to discuss the reality of the time period. Maybe that is why it is so popular: one-half an adventure novel and one-third a comic farce. Socially conscious or no...

A lot of the outcry, what little I have seen, originates around a couple of prime points. The first is that it—"it" being the objectionable language—opens the door to discussion. I'll give you that. Jim, who is half of the iconic pair, is treated even by the young boy who loves him as a bit of a nigger-minstrel, especially at start. The first few chapters can be kind of rough (Jim gets better as he goes along, which is to say Twain got more flesh unto Jim's bones besides simply the big, superstitious [historical context deleted]). Why is it in cases like this, or the old silent Wizard of Oz movie with Snowdrop instead of Toto, that even when black characters are treated as heroes, they still have to start out as comic relief semi-apes? You could talk quite a bit about the way this carries on into movies like Cop Out nowadays, or, switching race for gender, why strong women are often given scenes of feminine overkill leading to a slight breakdown to ease off the "bitch" title. At any rate, there is a good bit to discuss, including why the ending lets the whole novel down and turns it into a Tom Sawyer centric comedic romp as opposed to an emotional examination of loss and escape. I'll give you the discussion, part.

The part I am not quite so quick to give is the best summed up as: "Huck saying 'nigger' is the whole point of the novel." That might sound like I am overstating, but I ain't: some of the comments have claimed that very thing. The whole point. Of a novel famous for starting with the words: "Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot." You can argue that Twain meant that ironically, but I'd be willing he wasn't as ironic as some of these new revisionists wish. Great novels are posthumously ascribed. What's more, the word "nigger" is almost entirely offensive today (at least as said by whites about blacks) but its roots are a lot harder to nail down to such easy terms. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it has had a much longer life as a neutral term than a negative one. Guess when the change was? Did you guess sometime around the American Civil War? You win a prize! The problem is that exactly when is a bit harder to pinpoint. By the 1860s, and even before, it was starting to flip for sure but words don't change meanings overnight, especially pre-Internet, and so it is entirely possible that Twain, in keeping with the Missouri (or "Pike County") dialect of youth, would have been engaging in verisimilitude to keep it. Jim is a brother and father figure to Huck. He does not blink at the term. I'll give you that it leads to some interesting and some interestingly difficult discussion about the way words develop historical weight, but saying implying that Twain meant Huck to mean then what Huck would mean now? Meh.

I'm also a little irritated by the implication that it is some sort of Southern revisionism that would be the only real impetus for this edit. While this particular case is a Southerner through a Southern press—a press whose website claims, "We gravitate to material which enhances our understanding of who we are and which asks us to stretch in our understanding of others...defined by [our] strong cultural component,"—we are talking about a book that is well banned and criticized. According to the ALA, fifth most banned book in the 90s and fourteenth banned book in the 00s. Early challenges seem to have been largely in New England (referenced here on Banned Books Online, scroll down to "Unfit for Schools and Minors?"). Recent ones have been all over. No doubt there are those in the South that would love to pretend they were never racist, and no doubt some of those are still quite racist when they don't think anyone is listening, but placing that blame on Southern hands seems like an attempt to project something. "I don't mind teaching it because I am not racist, unlike those Southerners who were the real racists this whole time! SNARK!" What the hell does that say about all the people in Washington state that want it banned? Ex-pat Alabamans, are they? I've said it before: for all the bad things you can say about the South, this region deals relatively openly with its racist past unlike many other states with their attempts to forget history of Sunset Towns and what-have-you. And yeah, this is changing somewhat. The generation below seems to be showing some frustration at having the "What your grandparents did!" card thrown at them again and again, but it is too early to tell how that is going to go.

This has all been a ramble so I'll wrap it up. Race is a complicated thing, and history only makes it more so. But you know what I notice? Go back and look at those ALA "banned books" lists. It slipped nine-points and was replaced by newer books. Most of those books are newer, and in the next 10 years you will see it again. A hundred years ago, you did not have "young adult" fiction and now you do. No doubt Huck Finn will be an important character for years to come, but his presence in schools has been steadily dropping and I think this will continue. Let's leave aside the question of censorship and editing, should this book be retained or not? In the school setting? I think so, maybe. Just not sure which grade or in which context, but we no longer live in a world in which good young adult literature can be defined by the same dozen books it has always been.

And that is a whole other barrel of fish, when you have time for ten things and there are five hundred. Which to choose and choosing which is censorship?

* Like I did here: Zombie Finn. Thanks, Project Gutenberg.


Written by Doug Bolden

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