Thursday, January 6, 2011

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the Church of Mark Twain

It's been a slow news week.  At least that's one explanation for the blizzard of media coverage devoted to a forthcoming new edition of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  The shouting started pretty quickly after New South publishers announced a new edition that ties The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to Huckleberry Finn and replaces Twain's original language "nigger" with "slave" (and to a lesser aim, replaces "injun" with "indian").  The edition is edited by Alan Gribben, a scholar of Mark Twain.  The electronic response has been overwhelmingly against Gribben's editorial choice.  I have to think that he knew that he was going to ignite this firestorm and had done it with some intention.  If he didn't know it...well, I just don't know.

The jaded response is that this is a highly effective sales strategy.  You get people to throw a fit and then step back to see how sales go.  Twain would have appreciated that kind of economic honesty.  After all, Twain himself celebrated when the directors of the Concord, MA library banned Huck in 1885.  It would, he thought, increase sales.  People want to buy what is deemed contraband.  But I don't think that's really the case here.

I won't return to the arguments against this editing.  They are easily found and just as easily anticipated.  And, to be honest, I find the whole sense of outrage a little too practiced and theatrical.  Let me just say that I disagree with the thinking that led to the decision and find the whole idea of replacing Twain's language crazy.  Twain knew well what language he was using and had good reasons for using it.  He wanted his readers to feel uncomfortable; he also wanted readers to see how a society can be corrupted by an ideology that teaches the inferiority of a group based on race or race-characteristics.  And he wanted a book that would drive readers to contemplate the extent of their own culpability for social and economic and racial inequality.  And, of course, that's just the start of an argument.

What I find most interesting about the string of responses and attacks and commentaries is the way an established scholar is now deemed apostate from the church of Mark Twain.  Last month the Twain community was fuming against criticism of Twain's autobiography by Adam Gopnick (of The New Yorker) and Garrison Keillor (of lots of places).  Though these two writers spoke fondly of Twain, they were both shuffled out of the congregation of Twain supporters because they approached him with clear literary judgment.  Now Gribben is criticized with the abandon of the righteous.  And all because he felt it wise to soften Twain's language.  It may be a terrible editorial lapse.  But it's not a capital offense.  It may raise hell with the meaning of Twain's writing, but it's not the devil's work.  And this too shall pass.

Two points.  First, Gribben argues that a softer version will allow more and younger readers access to the novel.  I wonder why this is even a good idea:  by what reasonable thought is Huck Finn a book for young readers?  Even Twain was uncertain, I think.  Sure, he casts Tom Sawyer as a book for those adults who remember what it was to be a child (which is different from a book for children).  When he started Huck I think he wanted to write a book for adults about the dangers in a childhood lacking honest moral instruction and constrained by an adult world bent on its own agenda of inequality and reinforced with violence both domestic and social.  Later generations turned the book into a childhood classic.  And I think that false reading (a kind of sanitizing of its own) is the start of all our troubles. 

Second, the real challenge is finding teachers who are able to approach the book with a strong background in the reality of the 19th century in America.  For years I have worked with teachers who have sought a stronger foundation for teaching Twain's books.  A good teacher in a safe classroom can do wonders with Twain's book and Twain's language.  But, in the end, we also need to stop thinking that this one book is the way to understand American race relations.  It's one tool.  It's not the only one.  And it may not even be the best one.  Mostly, we have to admit that books and the ideas that form them can still be dangerous.  We have to confront that danger with honesty and not hide from that danger or hope to delay its arrival by offering a shallow substitute for harsh reality.


  1. Hi, Michael.

    I waited with great anticipation this week to read your response to the Huck Finn firestorm.

    In my opinion, the removal of the author's original language seems to be plain censorship. I concur that Twain was specific in the words he chose, to illustrate attitudes of that particular time and the ugliness that existed - probably still exists.

    I'm intrigued by the use of the 'n' word in African American pop culture. Figures such as Reverend Al Sharpton and Bill Cosby abhor its continued use among the younger generation. Yet popular culture embraces it and uses it as if it were a casual word such as 'dude'. It's thrown around in rap music, videos, etc. Why isn't there such a strong backlash in those situations? Shouldn't we be ashamed the 'n' word is thrown around today in an off-the-cuff manner?

    I'm not a fan of words being changed to make it "nicer" for the masses to swallow. Not all literature was written for a politically correct world and shouldn't be changed to fit into such a place. Sometimes you have to wade through the rottenness to discover the lessons to be learned.

    Just my two cents.

  2. I wonder if some of the wide use of "nigger" among minority groups has two (at least) considerations -- first, it can be a way to take on the language of the oppressor in order to challenge the oppression (in classic post-colonial theory this is a focal point). By making the word their own, they are able to mitigate the pain and hurt that comes with it. This leads to another issue -- in a way it demonstrates (perhaps) a genuine lack of historical awareness within the culture at large. Words do carry a history and are tied to contexts. If you don't know the real history behind a word, you are more likely to find it only useful in a contemporary setting and that can wash out the real meaning. I am not a linguist, but I can imagine some of this at work within the American cultural use of epithets.

    We also should stop thinking that everyone needs to read and "love" Mark Twain. Who says? Any writer knows that his or her message is going to reach only a portion of readers. That is accepted as soon as you begin writing. And I think that the fundamentalist believers in Mark Twain (and there are many) can't bear the idea that he is not embraced by everyone. I can see this in some of Alan Gribben's comments about his motivation for the edition. Let's just realize that Twain is NOT for everyone. It's a good deal more realistic.