Sunday, March 6, 2011


I've been thinking a lot about words recently. It started when I heard an interview on the radio with Dr. Alan Gribben, who has edited a bowdlerized version of the novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. (Published by New South Books) His stated purpose was to make the books more accessible to younger readers by removing every instance of the word "nigger" from the books and replacing it with the word "slave". His stated purpose is to remove barriers because the word makes younger readers uncomfortable and thus puts a barrier between them and Mark Twain's work. He also stated that teachers were reluctant to use the books in class because it contains that word. Once I picked my jaw up off the floor, I started thinking about his argument and found the whole notion of his changes objectionable.

Huckleberry Finn came under fire almost immediately. Published in 1864, by 1865 it was banned because it was "coarse". Who knows what was meant precisely, but the primary objection of the Brooklyn library in 1902 was concerned that Huck both itched and scratched and that the word "sweat" had been used rather than perspiration. Now, of course, the objections are focused on language, which reflect the cultural norms of a particular place and time in history.

In Dr. Gribben's concern for teachers being unwilling to use the book, I believe he shortchanges the profession. I'm certain that any good teacher would begin the study of the book by explaining the book's historical context. They would tell their students that the word was in the book and why Twain used it. They would talk about Mark Twain's childhood, growing up in a slave state and his witnessing of a brutal murder of a slave by a slave owner. They would talk about Twain's position on slavery and his use of sarcasm and irony. They would go on to point out that the character Jim, who is saddled with the unsavory adjective, is the most admirable character in the book. They would point out that Jim frees Huck from his ingrained prejudices and becomes free himself. So, I don't think Dr. Gribben's concerns for the teachers were justified.

Moving on to his concerns for students, particularly African American students, being uncomfortable with the word. Hopefully, their teachers would have taught them about the book before actually reading it. They would know about historical context, how the ugly bigotry and the nasty words related to it are no longer acceptable and why. They would have had discussions about ethnic/racial and all other sorts of prejudice. They would have been given ideas to look for within the characters of the book; the education and evolution of Huck, the ignorance of his father, Jim's essential dignity. Then they would begin their reading. And then, I hope that the word would still make them uncomfortable, no matter what the student's ethnicity, because it is a filthy, hateful word used by hateful people. It should make everyone uncomfortable. And if the students are too young to grasp all of that information, then they are too young to be assigned the book.

Perhaps because I am from Missouri and feel a bit proprietary about Mr. Twain or perhaps because I write a bit myself, the question is is Dr. Gribben's version of Huckleberry Finn still Mark Twain's work once he has tinkered with the objectionable adjectives? At the very least, it is something less than the original. It takes on the weight of a Cliff Notes version, a graphic novel or a condensed edition and, thus more than just a word has been lost in translation. It is not Mark Twain's book any longer. (And I swear that I can hear him cursing in the distance.) It is not just that the words Twain chose have been fiddled with, but also the tone he intended to set has been altered along with them. The people who call Jim by that word do so out of either ignorance, in Huck's case, or hatefulness and that is clearly shown in the book.

Words are powerful things and no childhood rhyme about sticks and stones can negate that. And Twain's use of the word is powerful enough that we discuss it, debate it and are made uncomfortable by it 101 years after his death. He knew what he was doing.

No comments: