Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Missing the Point (censoring Huck Finn)

Image found at Better Book Titles

Twitter has been abuzz with discussion -- the question often posed is, "What do you think of the new edited/censored/cleansed edition of Huckleberry Finn?" (For those not already in the know, in the new edition, published by NewSouth, the n-word apparently has been completely replaced with the word "slave.") And the runner-up question in my crowd of writers and lovers of literature has been, "What they hell were they thinking?!"

Publishers Weekly was kind enough to post a snippet from the new introduction to the new edition that tries to answer the latter:
The n-word possessed, then as now, demeaning implications more vile than almost any insult that can be applied to other racial groups. There is no equivalent slur in the English language. As a result, with every passing decade this affront appears to gain rather than lose its impact. Even at the level of college and graduate school, students are capable of resenting textual encounters with this racial appellative. In the 1870s and 1880s, of course, Twain scarcely had to concern himself about the feelings of African American or Native American readers. These population groups were too occupied with trying, in the one case, to recover from the degradation of slavery and the institution of Jim Crow segregation policies, and, in the other case, to survive the onslaught of settlers and buffalo-hunters who had decimated their ways of life, than to bother about objectionable vocabulary choices in two popular books.
Now, much has been said about the value (or lack thereof) of this new edition, more eloquently than I can manage right about now. And I've posted briefly about the new Huck Finn on Twitter ("Censorship reflects a society's lack of confidence in itself." --Potter Stewart).

I think that language matters, and so I think that replacing the n-word with "slave" devalues the purpose of Twain's whole book. If Huck has Jim stay low in the boat because people can tell he's a slave from a great distance... well, no. These words have fundamentally different meanings. A slave is an unpaid laborer. A black man labeled with the n-word is a disrespected and devalued human. Our knowledge of this distinction, along with our knowledge of Twain as an author, the time when he wrote the book (1876-1883), and the time he was writing about (somewhere between 1835-1845), serves to educate us (as does all good literature, dammit).

Additionally, I think we shouldn't shy away from uncomfortable questions of context: why it's okay (or not) for Mark Twain to write the n-word, why it's okay (or not) for Denzel Washington to say "my nigga" in his role as the bad cop in Training Day, and why I still can't bring myself to spell the word out in its entirety, even as part of a discussion about censorship.

But, again, I'm drifting into territory well-covered by others. Here's the thought I haven't seen articulated yet...

The editors of the book explain that the oppressed blacks of that time were too busy surviving and fighting "to bother about objectionable vocabulary choices in two popular books."*

Well, fine. It's 2011. So, what oppression remains? What should we still be focusing on fighting? Is it Mark Twain? Is it the language in the "popular book" Huck Finn (which, I didn't think I needed to remind anyone, is largely about a boy trying to free a slave, about freedom in the broader sense, and about characters trying to come to their own moral conclusions in the face of contrary societal values)?

Or is it the fact that books about minority characters are still getting covers with white faces? Is it that fact that, out of all the Young Adult and Middle Grade books published in 2010, apparently only about 50 (FIFTY!) were written by black authors? Only 16 by Latino authors? Should the well-educated students of today be "resenting textual encounters"? Or should they be resenting the paucity of minority texts on their library and bookstore shelves? In their classrooms?

Do we care about cleaning up the language in our books, or do we care about cleaning up the injustices in the entire publishing industry? Forget fixing the past. What are we doing about the present?

Image found HERE.

We need to get our fucking priorities straight.

* The new edition pairs Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn in one volume.
I have no knowledge of what censoring may have been applied to Tom Sawyer here.


  1. I just wonder what Mark Twain would think of all this....

  2. From what little I know about Twain as a writer, I think he'd be pissed. He worked VERY hard to get the language right to create a very specific effect, and changing the words here effectively changes the characters.

    From Wikipedia on Huck Finn:

    Mark Twain composed the story in pen on notepaper between 1876 and 1883. Paul Needham, who supervised the authentication of the manuscript for Sotheby's books and manuscripts department in New York in 1991, stated, "What you see is [Clemens'] attempt to move away from pure literary writing to dialect writing". For example, Twain revised the opening line of Huck Finn three times. He initially wrote, "You will not know about me", which he changed to, "You do not know about me", before settling on the final version, "You don't know about me, without you have read a book by the name of 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer'; but that ain't no matter". The revisions also show how Twain reworked his material to strengthen the characters of Huck and Jim, as well as his sensitivity to the then-current debate over literacy and voting.

  3. I understand and agree with all the arguments about bowdlerizing an author's work - but on the other hand, I'm not African-American, so I cannot comprehend the impact of seeing the word nigger on the page over and over and over again, I think over two hundred times. (I can't help but notice that few people even utter the word while decrying someone's daring publish an edition without it.) Me, I have problems with editing an author's work when he's not around to consent, but probably an publisher who put out an edition using n****r wouldn't make anyone happy, either.

  4. Sara, I am delighted to be able to provide you with a link to one black woman's perspective on just that -- the impact of reading the book and that word in class, and in her case, the impact of hearing some of her fellow students read the word out loud. She sides against the censorship, and I think it's a wonderful piece for us all to read.

    Thanks, But No Thanks: On Omitting the N-Word from Huck Finn by Cortnee Howard.

  5. I seem to feel that writers are merely observers relaying information and to change that information would make the work inaccurate for all who read it. It's complicated, isn't it?

  6. I'm sure there's always something in print that might offend somebody somewhere. Shall we just start censoring everything?
    Good post, Carrie, and I agree with what you say here.

    Tossing It Out