Actually, this headline came from Brandwine Books here, but we liked and so we stole it. Commenting on the Entertainment Weekly article (not our first article which we posted on Dec. 31 here) about Alan Gribben‘s forthcoming NewSouth edition of Mark Twain‘s Huckleberry Finn, Mr. Brandywine notes:
Every instance of the ‘n’ word (you know the word I mean) has been changed to ‘slave.’ And every instance of ‘Injun’ has been changed to… something. They don’t say what.
‘Is this really a big deal?’ the columnist asks.
Yeah, I kind of think it is. …
My opinion (I could, of course, be wrong), is that if a student is old enough to understand the extremely sophisticated themes of Huckleberry Finn, he or she is old enough to understand that the “n” word, while always offensive, was in very common use in Mark Twain’s time, even by black people themselves. I think that’s a fact worth knowing. Educational, even.
‘Ah ha!’ says someone. ‘But you’re saying “n word” yourself! You’re a hypocrite!’
‘Silence, Imaginary Interlocutor!’ say I (I might as well. Anthony Sacramone isn’t using the phrase much these days [I just tried to link to his dormant blog, but now it won't let you in without a Google account]). The truth of the age I live in is that the ‘n’ word is no longer in common use, except as an insult (and in rap lyrics). If I tried to use it in Mark Twain’s way, I’d be as false to my own world as it’s false to his to clean it up in Huckleberry Finn.
I hold (again, I could be wrong) that when it comes to speech, the Victorians were able to express themselves with far greater freedom than we enjoy today.”
I’m not so sure. Didn’t the Victorians find it to risqué to mention piano legs, and isn’t that why they put those silly little doilies on them? Be that as it may, I think the 19th century has taken a bum wrap for prudery, which was heavily localized in the upper middle classes. The lower classes recruited for the workhouses and brothels knew little about it.
Not a chance, sport. I have only two words to say to Phil: Textbook Sales.
The New York Times weighed in yesterday, contributing this to the discussion:
“I’m not offended by anything in ‘Huck Finn,’ ” said Elizabeth Absher, an English teacher at South Mountain High School in Arizona. “I am a big fan of Mark Twain, and I hear a lot worse in the hallway in front of my class.”
Ms. Absher teaches Twain short stories and makes “Huck Finn” available but does not teach it because it is too long — not because of the language.
“I think authors’ language should be left alone,” she said. “If it’s too offensive, it doesn’t belong in school, but if it expresses the way people felt about race or slavery in the context of their time, that’s something I’d talk about in teaching it.”
Doug Mataconis at Outside the Beltway notes that “it’s fairly obvious that Twain is condemning racial prejudice and that one of the central themes of the book is the process by which Huck discovers that the things he’d been taught by society by blacks were wrong, and that his companion him was, in fact, an heroic figure. Twain’s use of a word that, even in his time, was meant to be insulting and demeaning, was deliberate and removing it because of ‘sensitivities’ seems to me to detract significantly from the overall power of the novel.”
Kevin Drum at Mother Jones reads this and comes up with a different conclusion:
But the problem with Huckleberry Finn is that, like it or not, most high school teachers only have two choices these days: teach a bowdlerized version or don’t teach it at all. It’s simply no longer possible to assign a book to American high school kids that assaults them with the word nigger so relentlessly. As Twain scholar Alan Gribben, who led the bowdlerization effort, explained, “After a number of talks, I was sought out by local teachers, and to a person they said we would love to teach [Tom Sawyer] and Huckleberry Finn, but we feel we can’t do it anymore. In the new classroom, it’s really not acceptable.”
Given that choice, I guess I’d bowdlerize.