Changing Mark Twain’s Words

It’s happening yet again in the world of literature: another round of excision or censorship or whatever you want to call it, and it’s not necessarily new news by now, but I’ve just now gotten around to putting my thoughts down. For those of you who don’t know, NewSouth Books has decided to publish a new version of Mark Twain’s classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

There are several changes made to it, and the one getting the most attention is the decision to remove the word “nigger.” The editors have chosen to replace its absence with the word “slave.” They are also removing the word “Injun.” Undoubtedly this has made a lot of people cry out, “Censorship!” in anger. I don’t know that I’m necessarily livid, but I’m not happy about it.

Now, for the record, I don’t like the word “nigger,” nor do I go around saying it. The only reason it appears in this post is because of the topic about which I’m writing. So even though I don’t call African Americans by such a word, I still think it should stay in Twain’s novel. But first, here’s what the other side is saying.

The guy who helmed this excising, Alan Gribben, is a Twain expert, and NewSouth Books is not trying to shy away from the controversy, a decision on their part I applaud. You can find Gribben’s introduction to the book here, and he addresses the decision to remove the offensive words as well as explain why he eventually did. I won’t summarize his entire mini-essay because I trust if you’re visiting this blog you already know how to read. Though I will reference statements he makes, I would still suggest you go and read the entire thing for yourself.

Gribben goes as far to claim that Twain himself most likely would have refrained from using the word “nigger,” for “as a notoriously commercial writer who watched for every opportunity to enlarge the mass market for his works, he presumably would have been quick to adapt his language if he could have foreseen how today’s audiences recoil at racial slurs in a culturally altered country.” I believe this is a pretty heavy amount of conjecture on Gribben’s part.

First, Twain was part of the movement in literature that venerated high realism, so much so that he wrote an entire essay ripping into the quality of James Fenimore Cooper’s work because of the numerous logical fallacies Cooper used. Twain would not alter the dialogue of his characters if he held realism in such high regard. And secondly, I’m not so sure Twain cared what people thought as much as Gribben makes it out to be, for he is notorious for having been a sharp-witted satirist who didn’t back down from a war of words in which he could use his searing vocabulary. Twain was more than comfortable with stepping on peoples’ toes.

Gribben does not have Twain backing him up. Twain is dead. Gribben is his own party, but that doesn’t mean his introduction doesn’t have merit. He notes that what Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has to offer to readers won’t hinge on the offensive words. This is true in a sense, but earlier he notes how “nigger” appears 218 times. Pretty frequent amount. Regardless of your position on the excision or the word itself, it has a rather significant presence (and, thus, effect) in the novel.

Probably the best things Gribben has to say is to note how there are many parents and educators out there today who still vehemently oppose letting kids read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because of the frequency of offensive words and that this edition will open the door for children to read this for the first time. He also reminds purists how there are many editions available out there that still contain the original wording, and they always will exist. He ends by acknowledging how this rendering is not meant to be thought of as a scholarly version. So he’s not fooling himself. This is good.

Now, given Gribben’s argument, I almost come around to appreciating what he has done, but one thing I know from going through middle school, junior high, and high school is that students never read the introduction, and the only time they will is if required by the teacher. Even then, most just skim it. For me, the conversation in class always went like this:

“Hey, did you read the introduction?”
“No. Were we supposed to?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Oh.” (pause) “Well, it’s not like it matters now.”

Which usually ends up being true because the teachers I had almost never mentioned the introduction in class even if they had asked us to read it. I would like to think my educators were the exception, but I doubt this is the case. If NewSouth’s edition is taught in schools, are teachers going to call attention to the changes made? It doesn’t mean they have to even say the word “nigger” in class. They can just reference how Gribben chose to remove “the n-word,” and explain his reasons for doing so. Granted, I’m a purist when it comes to literature and I realize most kids hate their English classes, but I believe kids need to know when something is not the way it originally was. If anything, this can facilitate a needed, respectful dialogue in a classroom about the power of language, which is the primary necessitated response to that slacker of a student who slouches in his chair and goes, “I don’t see the point of studying this.”

It’s because words have power. That demands our attention. So much power, in fact, that Gribben felt the need to take away from what Twain originally set down in ink. Now, I said I was “almost” appreciative of his decision to make such an alteration, but I stop short of saying I truly admire it because of a thought that bothers me: what if this edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn becomes the staple version of the novel we teach in high school classes?

Some will ask, “What would be so bad about that?” Well, a lot if you ask a history buff. Are we now trying to revamp history? Slough over the abysmal mistakes of yesterday as if they never occurred? This should heavily concern us because the next question you have to ask is, “Where does this stop in the classroom?” If “nigger” is too volatile for young audiences, then what do you do with the Holocaust? “Oh, those six million Jews weren’t really massacred and slaughtered and butchered and tortured and treated like animals. They all just kind of went to sleep forever.” I’m not trying to downplay the atrocities surrounding the word “nigger.” It has a most nefarious history, one we pray will never be repeated. But it doesn’t make sense to erase it like it never happened.

But I wonder if that is this publisher’s aim. Interesting that they’re called NewSouth Books. What does that even mean? On their website, a newspaper hails them as a “risk-taking, socially conscious publisher.” That sounds all well and good until one of their co-owning partners, Suzanne La Rosa says, “We gravitate to material which enhances our undertanding [sic] of who we are and which asks us to stretch in our understanding of others.”

No, they don’t! By removing the verbiage of the past, you’re not trying to understand who we are and who others are because who we are also relates to where we’ve come from, and when you remove the fact that racism and bigotry are a really big part of our heritage (one still present today), you’re missing a big chunk of comprehending the South and its curse of slavery. As much as you might want to, you can’t mitigate the burden of past sins just by removing a few choice words. It doesn’t work like that.

Because here’s the great thing about Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It’s a book written against slavery. As Gribben noted in his introduction, Twain had a turnaround in his life and came to be vehemently opposed to the enslavement of human beings. And so books like his are used so as to teach against racism, not for it. If, for some reason, an educator is using Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to teach in favor of racism, then the problem is not with the words Twain set down on pages hundreds of years ago. The problem is with that teacher, and he or she should be sacked immediately sans severance pay.

It’s great that Gribben wants as many people as possible to get their hands on Twain’s exceptional novel. I applaud that. I just wonder if this will change 1) the way in which we teach Twain and 2) the way in which we understand Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

That second one is especially key, and some people will ask if this removal of offensive words is really just a nonissue.  If it is, then there’s no reason to be upset. But if it isn’t a nonissue, there’s something to get worked up about it. Even though they’re radically different novels, let’s ask this: what if Little, Brown decided to re-edit J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and remove all of Holden Caulfield’s curse words? Some people would say this isn’t a big deal, but it’s huge. It’s astronomical, actually, for it would change the entire book.

How? Consider who Holden Caulfield is: this wandering youth who has a vehement distaste for “phoniness.” Now, I will go ahead and mention it’s been two years since I’ve read The Catcher in the Rye, so I suppose I could be mis-remembering things here, but I seem to recall Caulfield epitomizing a life lived far away from phoniness. He, as narrator to us, doesn’t mind showing us all his colors. His own hatred of phoniness causes him to do his best to stay away from it. He’s not without his hypocritical moments, for he is still young, but he’s usually quite honest with the reader when he says things like, “I don’t even know what I was running for – I guess I just felt like it,” in chapter one. He’s very transparent.

Another example of his desire to stay away from phoniness is his foul language. He’s uncouth, he knows it, and he won’t pretend he’s someone he’s not or put up a façade of being proper when no one else is looking. Now imagine that we’ve excised all the curse words from The Catcher in the Rye. What have we just done? We’ve completely changed who Caulfield is. We’ve just made him phony. We’ve taken away his vulnerability with the reader. We’ve moved him more onto the side of the scale tipped towards good boys and not the side of the rebels. And since Salinger’s novel is all about Holden Caulfield, our changing the protagonist means we’ve just changed the entire novel. In other words, we’ve wrecked a classic piece of literature. We just rewrote it so as to make it more comfortable for us. Since when has good literature been about comfort?

In his Entertainment Weekly article, Keith Staskiewicz calls the censorship “unfortunate, but is it really any more catastrophic than a TBS-friendly re-edit of The Godfather?” Good question, however, those are two completely different art mediums—one steeped in the visual realm versus that which is read and imagined in the mind. Differences in art form aside, it is a valid point to consider.

Staskiewicz also echoes Gribben when he says, “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?”

And that’s exactly the question all of this hinges on: will the excision affect the original? If it does, then absolutely no, it is not worth it. Twain chose to write what he did for a reason, just like any author does with their stories. Not everybody can be like William Faulkner and write a novel in a little over forty days. For most writers it takes years, meticulous days on end of choosing just the right wording and phrasing. And then someone just comes along and changes the things in the book that make them cringe? If that’s the case, there’s a whole wealth of literature that needs excision. “Yes, but most of that is taught in colleges.” True, so perhaps maybe we should just move Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to the collegiate circuit? I would be okay with that.

Actually, that’s exactly how my education went. I didn’t read Twain’s novel in high school, and college was the first time I’d ever encountered it. I don’t feel like I missed out on anything from the ages of fifteen to eighteen. Could be because I didn’t know what I missing, but after reading through Adventures of Huckleberry Finn my junior year I wasn’t irate because of some feeling that I’d had something unjustly withheld from me.

A novel like Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn demands a mature audience, not in the sense that they can handle reading and hearing the word “nigger,” but in the sense that they will respectfully approach the unique accomplishment in literature that this American novel is. Perhaps we can pull a Pilate here and say for Twain’s sake, “What he has written, he has written.” Samuel Clemens is dead, so who’s going to stop us from changing his words, right? Or should we give the man the respect he is due now that the dust of his bones lies six feet under?

I don’t have a neat little conclusion to put on this post. I don’t think there can be one. Gribben wants to see young people have the opportunity to read this book now and not later until college. For me, if it means changing Twain’s syntax, then maybe we should just hold off on letting people read it until their undergraduate studies. The angry crowd can read between the lines of that compromise and see that, either way, the easily-offended editors win. But, then again, that’s the culture in which we live now. People bristle at friction far too quickly, and rather than face head-on the uglier parts of the past, they’d just opt to pretend like they never happened. To each his own. But for the love of a man like Mark Twain, please don’t rewrite our young nation’s classic literature in the process.

Much love.


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