Mark Athitakis, Mark Bauerlein, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Francine Prose, et al. on Huck Finn and the n-word — where to begin?Friday, January 7th, 2011
So much new news on the n-word firestorm, it’s hard to know where to begin.
First of all, NewSouth has published excerpts of Alan Gribbens‘s introduction to the new “n-less” edition of Mark Twain‘s Huckleberry Finn. Mark Athitakis’ American Fiction Notes attacks the new introduction as gutless here.
Over at Books Inq., Chris Matarazzo of the Hats and Rabbits blog comments: “The ‘visible sense of relief” the editor ‘sensed’ during lectures as a result of his having substituted in the word ‘slave’ is seen by him as an indication that the substitution was a good idea. I would argue that it better indicates that it was a bad idea.”
On Wednesday, the New York Times ran a spread on the controversy, with 11 opinions.
Among them, Mark Bauerlein began with a classroom anecdote while he was teaching Frederick Douglass‘s autobiographical works. One student was offended, and dropped the class.
What would Douglass think of a man who closed his book because of that word? “I’ve been torn from my mother, beaten regularly, and I’ve witnessed rape and murder,” he might say. “You can’t take the ordinary label of the day?”
Most of all, Douglass understood that dignity can endure even at the bottom of a slave society no matter the abuse. Twain did, too, showing that in spite of all the cruelty and the racial epithets, Jim remains the noble figure in the novel. Take away the insult and we lose the full measure of his character.
Worse, Alan Gribben’s hesitation over the the epithet has a terrible effect, producing the anti-intellectual attitude of many students. “I found myself right out of graduate school at Berkeley not wanting to pronounce that word when I was teaching either ‘Huckleberry Finn’ or ‘Tom Sawyer,’” Gribben has said.
Stop being so fussy. Political correctness is bad tutelage, validating thin skins and selective inquiries. The more students read sanitized materials in high school, the more they enter college inclined to dispel things they don’t want to hear.
Facebook keeps urging me to “friend” Francine Prose but when I try, I get standardized rejections that she has too many friend requests already — so I’m glad to see with all that socializing that she has time to think about Huck. She has a different concern: “… what puzzles me most about the debate — I’m not trying to sound willfully naïve — is why the word “nigger” should be more freighted, more troubling, the cause of more (to paraphrase the edition’s introduction) ‘resentment’ than the word ‘slave.’ Racial epithets are inarguably disgusting, but not nearly so disgusting as an institution that treats human beings as property to be beaten, bought and sold. ‘Nigger’ and ‘slave’ are not synonyms by any stretch of the imagination. Jim’s problem is not that he is called a ‘nigger’ but that he is chattel who can be freed or returned to his master.” She concludes:
Knowing the history of censorship in our libraries, knowing how often Huck Finn has been removed from a school’s curriculum because of the word “nigger,” I’m almost inclined to say that if it takes censorship to insure that the book is still widely read, it might not be the worst thing. Let students experience Huck’s consciousness and discover the cruel realities that his culture took for granted. After that they may be inspired to read what Mark Twain actually wrote.
Racism is ugly. The history and legacies of American racism are our nation’s own peculiar brand of ugly — and the n-word embodies it.
To understand how racism works in America it is necessary to understand how this word has been used to inflict pain on black people, challenge their humanity, and undercut their achievements. Leading black writers in America from Frederick Douglass to Ralph Ellison have understood this: to criticize racism effectively you have to make your reader hear how racists sound in all their offensive ugliness. …
It is the persistence of racism in America that makes the n-word in Huck Finn a problem in the classroom. We need to give teachers the tools they need to teach Twain’s book in the context of the history of racism in this country that is its central concern.
Over at Mark Athitakis’ American Fiction Notes, Mark concludes:
Unquestionably, Twain’s text presents a serious problem for teachers: Cynthia Haven, who first brought word of the NewSouth book, has heard from professors sharing their reservations about discussing the book. But the book doesn’t fix the problem so much as it identifies a market niche: People who think that this book will fix the problem. Twain might have appreciated this kind of ruckus: When he learned that the Concord Public Library had banned Huckleberry Finn from its shelves shortly after the novel was published in 1885, he wrote, “That will sell 25,000 copies, sure.” But would he have any patience for the sanctimony surrounding this version of book—the very sanctimony Huckleberry Finn skewers?
“New Huckleberry Finn Edited for Language” at The Onion here.
And Sharon Heinz sent us this: