Posts Tagged ‘Alan Gribben’

Teaching Huck Finn: Novices need not apply.

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011
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The nation, and even the world, is still talking about Alan Gribben‘s new edition of Huckleberry Finn, which eliminates the notorious n-word.  The general public seems to be agin’ it — except for educators, who are showing an interest.  Although the conversation is winding down, I expect it will continue  for some time to come.

Ray: Prepare the students

The latest installment comes from Elaine Ray, journalist and cofounder of the Parent Network for Students of Color.   (She is also, by the way, editor of My Father’s Posts, an intriguing exploration of the writings of her Barbados-born father, also a journalist.)  Here it is:

Imagine being a 12 or 13-year-old Asian-American middle school student in our pre-“post racial society.”  You are in a school in which there are only a handful of black students and race is rarely dealt with in a direct or constructive way, though racially tinged adolescent jokes and taunts are common. Now imagine being a black girl in that class watching your Asian friend squirm as he is asked to read passages from Huckleberry Finn aloud to the rest of his mostly white class.

I am the parent of that black girl who came home from 7th grade that day horrified at her friend’s embarrassment. Of course, my daughter probably felt her own anguish, but it was easier to project her discomfort on to her friend.

When her father and I approached the teacher about that discomfort, the teacher’s best defense was that she didn’t believe in censorship. I tried to explain to the teacher that I was with her on that, but it was not “whether” she taught the novel that I was concerned about, but “how” she prepared her students for what they were being asked to read. I suggested that she review the work of scholars who had devoted their life’s work to exploring effective approaches to teaching the book.

She didn’t seem to get it, but I trust that in the intervening years, she’s gained some experience as a teacher and has a better understanding of the issue. Perhaps she’s reading the current debate.

My argument has always been that the novel should be taught as it is, but that the adult who is responsible for introducing it to students better damn well know what he or she is doing. Not only do these teachers need to understand and have the skills to articulate the context in which the novel was written, they also need to understand who their students are and the racial context of their lives. Internalizing Jim’s humiliation might be far different in a classroom with a critical mass of black students than it would be in a room in which there is only one.

My daughter’s friend likely was no stranger to the N-word, which by then had pervaded popular culture, but he was sophisticated or intuitive enough to understand the difference between the word’s use in a bravado-filled rap song and its use as a tool of derision in the mouth of Huck.

In a Jan. 16, op-ed piece in the New York Times, author Lorrie Moore writes that the novel is best saved for “college — or even graduate school — where it can be put in proper context.”

She argues that at a time when people are asking themselves how to get boys, particularly black American boys, to read, Huckleberry Finn is likely to turn them off.

“The young black American male of today, whose dignity in our public schools is not always preserved or made a priority, does not need at the start of his literary life to be immersed in an even more racist era by reading a celebrated text that exuberantly expresses everything crazy and wicked about that time . . ..” Moore writes.

What impact the 7th grade experience had on the members of my daughter’s class, I’ll probably never know. But there is no doubt that her teacher’s cavalier approach to the novel made the prospects for an honest discussion about race in America ever more unlikely.

In “Send Huck Finn to College,” Moore also points out that the remedy is not to replace “nigger” with alternative terms like “slave,” since “the latter word is already in the novel and has a different meaning from ‘nigger,’ so that substitution just mucks up the prose — its meaning, its voice, its verisimilitude.”  She writes:

Moore: Teach it in college

Huckleberry Finn is suited to a college course in which Twain’s obsession with the 19th-century theater of American hucksterism — the wastrel West, the rapscallion South, the economic strays and escapees of a harsh new country — can be discussed in the context of Jim’s particular story (and Huck’s).

An African-American 10th grader, in someone’s near-sighted attempt to get him newly appreciative of novels, does not benefit by being taken back right then to a time when a young white boy slowly realizes, sort of, the humanity of a black man, realizes that that black man is more than chattel even if that black man is also full of illogic and stereotypical superstitions.”

Fishkin: Give teachers tools (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Shelley Fisher Fishkin, incidentally, agrees with Elaine.  In an article about the controversy in The Scotsman, she said:  “Huckleberry Finn is a very challenging book to teach, and if teachers are not prepared to engage in the history of racism in America then they probably shouldn’t teach it,” says Fishkin. “But I think a better strategy than bowdlerisation is to give teachers the tools to teach it effectively. For the last three decades I have been involved in doing that.”

(Incidentally, the journalist, Dani Garavelli, wrote about the n-word:  “Indeed, even writing this article presented a dilemma, as it is has long been the editorial policy of Scotland on Sunday that the word be printed with asterisks, one of only three words that fall into that category, the others being two commonly used swear words.”)

Postscript on 1/20From Frank Wilson over at Books Inq.:  “Here’s an idea: Start the class by playing some rap tunes in which the dreaded word appears. Then ask if anybody found the use of the word in those songs offensive. Then read a passage from Huck in which the word also appears. Then ask the same question.”

Postscript on 1/21: Over at Bill Peschel‘s blog — “Would Mark Twain have removed n***** from Huck Finn?  Hell, yes“:

“…Twain had a history of censoring his works, even on “Huckleberry Finn.” He was a working writer, supporting his growing family, his big house in Hartford and his investment in an invention that would have revolutionized newspaper typesetting if it had worked. He worked for a living, and he shaped his writing and his opinions accordingly.”

Bill tells the story about how Twain had three people “patrolling the pages of Huck Finn for outrages against public taste.”  It’s here.

The n-word controversy: Mark Bauerlein wraps it up in The Chronicle of Higher Education

Tuesday, January 11th, 2011
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Earlier today, a friend mentioned that Mark Twain once said something like, “The easiest way to be recognized as a leader is to find a parade and get in front of it.”  I can’t find the quote anywhere — but as Ken Kesey said, I’m sure it’s the truth, even if it didn’t happen.

And it’s especially fitting in a day the Book Haven achieved a brief flicker of fame via Mark Bauerlein in The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s “Brainstorm” blog here. He retraced our steps in the Huck Finn and the n-word kerfuffle — “as far as I know, the controversy began with a blog post by Cynthia Haven here” — and then follows the twists and turns through Sam Gwynn‘s concerns and Alan Gribben‘s explanations to conclude masterfully:

Haven’s selections are illuminating, for in Gribben’s and Gwynn’s explanations the whole problem crystallizes. When Gwynn puts the n-word in CAPS, he registers its force, which explains why he feels justified in deleting it.  This is, however, to give the term a moral meaning that it does not deserve. Yes, the n-word has moral meaning, but in the classroom it should be circumscribed by its historical existence. To grant it so much power today, at this moment, is to be captive to the power it possessed in 1884 and in 1950.

Likewise, when Gribben terms the n-word ”now-indefensible,” he assumes a moral stance toward it that is misdirected. No teacher should approach the language in a book written more than 100 years ago as in a condition of defensible or indefensible. Assigning a work is not the same thing as endorsing it. It is to hold the work up to analysis.  Furthermore, one of the lessons of the assignment should be to recognize that one can analyze something that one deplores. Simply deploring it is not enough, we should tell our students. The deletion of the n-word in the novel does the opposite, teaching students to consult their sensitivities more than their intellects.  Thanks, Cynthia, for bringing the action into the light.

And thank you, Mark, for framing the history so succinctly and the issues so thoughtfully.  We now return to our accustomed obscurity.

The n-word: Michiko Kakutani has spoken.

Saturday, January 8th, 2011
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She has spoken.

Michiko Kakutani adds her two cents on the n-word debate in the New York Times today:

Mr. Gribben’s effort to update Huckleberry Finn (published in an edition with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by NewSouth Books), like Mr. Foley’s assertion that it’s an old book and “we’re ready for new,” ratifies the narcissistic contemporary belief that art should be inoffensive and accessible; that books, plays and poetry from other times and places should somehow be made to conform to today’s democratic ideals. It’s like the politically correct efforts in the ’80s to exile great authors like Conrad and Melville from the canon because their work does not feature enough women or projects colonialist attitudes.

Radford's mini-bowdlerization

Authors’ original texts should be sacrosanct intellectual property, whether a book is a classic or not. Tampering with a writer’s words underscores both editors’ extraordinary hubris and a cavalier attitude embraced by more and more people in this day of mash-ups, sampling and digital books — the attitude that all texts are fungible, that readers are entitled to alter as they please, that the very idea of authorship is old-fashioned. …

Michael Radford’s 2004 film version of “The Merchant of Venice” (starring Al Pacino) revised the play to elide potentially offensive material, serving up a nicer, more sympathetic Shylock and blunting tough questions about anti-Semitism. More absurdly, a British theater company in 2002 changed the title of its production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” to “The Bellringer of Notre Dame.” … According to Noel Perrin’s 1969 book, “Dr. Bowdler’s Legacy: A History of Expurgated Books in England and America,” Victorians explained their distaste for the colorful, earthy works of 18th-century writers like Laurence Sterne and Henry Fielding by invoking the principle of “moral progress” and their own ethical superiority: “People in the 18th century, and earlier, didn’t take offense at coarse passages, because they were coarse themselves.”

Huckleberry Fi (n’s removed) — continued

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011
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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.

Among the blog’s commenters is “Phil,” who says:  “This is ridiculous, and I hope the book does not sell.”

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.

First the Book Haven — then the world. The Huck Finn “n-word” ignites the nation.

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011
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A classic: "a book which people praise and don't read."

Well, well, well.  We don’t like to brag … not much, anyway … but the whole world seems to have picked up on the Huck Finn and the n-word story, which started here a few day ago, thanks to a reader tip.  (If you find a story prior to our Dec. 31 post, let us know. We’re curious.)  Another case of the power of the blog, even a relatively obscure one.  We’re not Huffington Post, after all.

We started it, Books Inq picked it up Jan. 2, Bookshelves of Doom carried it later in the same day … then Publisher’s Weekly ran a story yesterday, the Entertainment Weekly published an article here, which was deluged with over 1,000 comments.

Unsurprisingly, EW writes:

Unsurprisingly, there are already those who are yelling “Censorship!” as well as others with thesauruses yelling “Bowdlerization!” and “Comstockery!”

Actually, we used the word “Bowdlerization,” and think people are smart enough to know the origins of the word and the 19th century editor Thomas Bowdler who made Shakespeare “respectable” for the fainting couch crowd.

EW continues:

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?

Frank Wilson at Books Inq exploded at that one in a post titled “Dumb Reaction“:   “Well, the point is that it does affect the original. Something else from Wittgenstein: ‘One age misunderstands another; and a petty age misunderstands all others in its own nasty way.’”

CNN picked up the EW story — and from there, the world.  From CNN:

Quote of the day: “What’s next? We take out the sexual innuendo from Shakespeare? Or make Lenny Small “normal”? How about cut all the violence out of Clockwork Orange? ” –AA

A pretty close paraphrase of what we said.

A couple more comments:

jujube said, “So it’s a children’s edition of ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ Adults can and should still read the original. I don’t get the outrage.”

Bobby said, “So we take the ‘n’ word out of Huck Finn, but all of these rappers and hip hop stars still say it every other word, and that’s fine?”

Publishers Weekly actually went so far as to write the n-word, which occurs in Twain’s book 219 times.  It also noted that Twain himself defined a “classic” as “a book which people praise and don’t read.” This one may be different.  Its article also notes that the new edition dispenses with the “in-word” — that is to say, “Injun.”

Dr. Gribben recognizes that he’s putting his reputation at stake as a Twain scholar,” said [NewSouth cofounder Suzanne] La Rosa. “But he’s so compassionate, and so believes in the value of teaching Twain, that he’s committed to this major departure. I almost don’t want to acknowledge this, but it feels like he’s saving the books. His willingness to take this chance—I was very touched.”

We posted a reply from NewSouth this morning as a postscript on our original post.

By the way, Garrison Keillor wrote a reaction to the newly published Autobiography of Mark Twain in the New York Times a few weeks ago here: “Samuel L. Clemens was a cheerful promoter of himself, and even after he’d retired from the lecture circuit, the old man liked to dress up as Mark Twain…”  Spoiler:  He didn’t like it much.

But wait! It gets better! More on Huck Finn and the n-word.

Friday, December 31st, 2010
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Voilà!

Yesterday, I wrote about the latest flap over Mark Twain‘s use of the n-word in Huckleberry Finn. NYC Councilman Charles Barron apparently thinks the book should be banned:  “I find it interesting that Huckleberry Finn is a classic when it says [the n-word] 200 times,” he said.

Barron is not alone in his reservations.  Poet and professor Sam Gwynn made this comment on yesterday’s post:

Gwynn...a p.o.v. to be reckoned with

“Frankly, I just can’t teach it any longer. I know it’s great, and I can lecture for a day or so about how Twain is being faithful to the dialects and to the way that people spoke back then. But trying to lecture about its literary merits takes a back seat when I see how African American students (I’m talking about teenage sophomores, taking the class for core credit) are reacting to the iterations of THAT WORD. The problem is that Twain doesn’t distinguish between those who are using the word in a “kindly” manner (we could probably assume that this is the only word for black people that Huck has ever heard) and those who are using it an an epithet. Used indiscriminately in these ways, it just makes everyone in a classroom uncomfortable. Maybe if I were a better (or younger) teacher I could use this book to challenge all kinds of assumptions about language and art. I just don’t find myself up to the fight anymore, at least at the sophomore level. I think this is a pretty good 2/3 of a novel, but I really wonder why it has become canonized as the GAN.”  [That's the Great American Novel for the uninitiated.]

Gribben's got the answer?

Now, here’s the news flash:  A constant reader tipped me off that Barron’s problem is about to be solved by NewSouth books!  Dr. Alan Gribben is publishing a new edition that, among other innovations, dispenses with the n-word altogether.

Gribben explains that Twain’s novels “can be enjoyed deeply and authentically without those continual encounters with hundreds of now-indefensible racial slurs.” It is the first volume to wash out Twain’s mouth with soap.  Gribben believes that the presence of the n-word has gradually diminished the readership of Twain’s masterpiece.

Gribben said that another radical departure from standard editions is that these will be published as the continuous narrative that he says the author originally envisioned. “People during that time did not think of him as a fiction writer,” the Twain scholar told The Montgomery Advertiser. “Twain had difficulty at times developing plot lines for his novels and much preferred his travel books.”

But dumping the n-word is clearly the controversy that will boost sales.

Original as rough draft for translator

I think he’s on to something.  As a woman, I have always had issues about the ending of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. You know, the bit where Kate kneels down and blathers on about being her husband’s slave.  Surely one of our modern-day blank verse wizards could crank out something a little less offensive?  For that matter, I would like to see the b-word, the c-word, and the w-word eliminated from our public discourse about females running for office.

And there’s way, way too much violence in the Bible.  Lots of foreskins gathered, a number of rapes (including one gang rape), massacres on a regular basis. Think of all those psalms that begin with rivers or vineyards and end with a wish that someone’s brains be dashed out against a wall.  These nasty bits could do with a serious editing and revision … whoops!  Stephen Mitchell already has.

Seriously, though.  Sam Gwynn’s objections to the book are not to be taken lightly — Sam is a smart guy.  But the Bowdlerization of Twain concerns me.

The new Twain will be out in February.  Can we wait?

Postscript on 1/4:  NewSouth books replies in the comments section below:

Cynthia and Sam, thank you both for your thought-provoking comments about this. The best thing NewSouth’s edition of Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn could do is generate more discussion about race, language, and literature, and we were pleased to read your post.

Again, we’ll note that the inspiration for this volume of Twain’s books came from Dr. Gribben’s actual conversations with teachers, uncomfortable with or in some cases restricted from teaching especially Huckleberry Finn because of the language within. We see our edition as a teaching tool with numerous applications, from the teacher who wants to teach Twain’s works without getting into the language controversy, to a teacher who wants to teach the NewSouth edition side-by-side with another edition to specifically discuss controversial language and responses to the two works. Before this edition, that wouldn’t have been possible.

The publisher promises to post the introduction to the book on its website soon.

Postscript on 1/5:  Hey, we started a fire with this one!  First the Book Haven, then the world: check it out here.