Posts Tagged ‘Sam Gwynn’

Stay tuned… more from Philadelphia, coming up soon!

Friday, June 10th, 2016
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The Book Haven has been unusually silent these last few days. We’ve been at the West Chester Poetry Conference outside Philadelphia, attending workshops, panels, and readings with Dick Davis, Dana Gioia, Sir Andrew Motion, Sam Gwynn, and many, many others.

Humble Moi will be on a panel tomorrow morning to discuss Robert Conquest, the late great historian and poet, who died last year at Stanford.

Just to let you know we mean business, the photo below is taken from Thursday morning’s public conversation with Andrew Motion, former British poet laureate and biographer of Philip Larkin. Dana Gioia was his interlocutor (and no, he’s not as unhappy as he looks). Photograph taken by Gerry Cambridge.

DGioia&AMotion copy

Dana Gioia ponders a remark from Sir Andrew Motion. (Photo: Gerry Cambridge)

 

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.

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.

My neighbor: Volodya Nabokov

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010
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Secretive Sam...at West Chester's Poetry Conference

I had lunch on Memorial Day with poet R.S. Gwynn and his lovely wife Donna, the day before their 33rd anniversary, in a cosy little Mexican cafe on California Avenue. But Sam was sitting on a little secret he didn’t share with me.  Or perhaps I merely hadn’t had a chance to worm it out of him before the two visiting Texans swapped me for the more pedestrian charms of the Pacific coast.

Now he’s at the center of the storm:  Ron Rosenbaum, writing in Slate, announces the next hot Nabokov controversy, and the story is making the rounds in the blogosphere.  The poem “Pale Fire” is about to be liberated from Pale Fire. The 900-line poem at the center of what many call Vladimir Nabokov‘s finest novel, written presumably by the murdered John Shade, will be published separately by Ginkgo Press:  “Nabokov wrote it, and the question of why he wrote it and who he modeled Shade on is the subject of what will be an equally controversial essay accompanying the edition, by poet and poetry professor R.S. Gwynn.”

Vladimir Nabokov, my neighbor ... so to speak

Wait!  Wait!  Don’t dash for the exits in your excitement!

“I know, I know, this may seem to be more esoteric, it doesn’t have the built-in intrigue of a manuscript in a Swiss safe-deposit box. But it’s no tempest in a teapot, not to those familiar with the long-simmering controversy over the poem ‘Pale Fire.’ And with the unbearable beauty and delight both the poem and novel offer. But when you’re dealing with how to read—on the most basic level—the central node of perhaps the greatest work of the supreme artist of the English language of our era, the stakes are high and worth, I believe, my attempt to explain what it’s all about for non-Nabokov readers. (Needless to say, I’d prefer all of you latecomers to run out to read or reread the novel; it is a work of pure pleasure, eminently accessible, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, despite its deceptive “experimental novel” outer architecture.)

Rosenbaum continues:

“I was particularly struck by the degree of erudition about contemporary American poetry that Gwynn brought to his case that Nabokov meant ‘Pale Fire’ to be a reproof to over-casual, over-personal, over-trivial trends in American poetry. A reproof to the belief that formal poetics could not capture deep feeling in traditional verse forms. And that Nabokov had modeled John Shade on the well-known traditionalist American poet Yvor Winters, who was a partisan of formal poetics.

Lanz ... Humbert?

I’ve written about Nabokov’s brief, but fruitful, residency in Palo Alto here, in a little house on Sequoia Avenue so close to my own home that I occasionally walk my dog past it.  At that time, I was exploring the connection between Humbert Humbert and, believe it or not, the founder of the Stanford Slavic Department, Henry Lanz.  Sam had queried me about the connection between Yvor Winters and Nabokov, and I wrote to Helen Pinkerton on the subject: she seemed to have a vague memory of poet Janet Lewis, Winters’s wife, washing dishes with him at the Winters home in Los Altos.  She finally tracked down the reference in Larry McMurtry‘s “The Return of Janet Lewis,” in the New York Review of Books (June 11, 1998) — “a delightful essay on her and all of her work.”  McMurtry writes:

Winters...John Shade?

“Janet too is very polite, but she’s neither fussy nor chilly. She’s lived in that smallish but cheerful house for sixty-four years and is thoroughly the mistress of it; there she raised her family, there she watched war come and war be over, there she entertained generations of poets, artists, musicians, and even the occasional lepidopterist such as Vladimir Nabokov, who showed up at her door with his butterfly net one day in 1941.  The Nabokovs and the Winterses hit it off; the exiles came often for meals. I had heard that Navokov enjoyed himself so much in her kitchen that he sometimes helped her wash up; when I asked her about this she chuckled and said, ‘Why, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had.'”

Sam told me at the time “there doesn’t seem to be any record of their having met or corresponded after that. … For obvious reasons, the trail is pretty cold.”

That was then; this is now.  Rosenbaum promises the essay will be controversial:  “Was I right that Paul Berman‘s book would cause a brawl or what?”

***

UPDATE:  From Sam:  “If anyone has any information about the Nabokov-Winters friendship, please post a comment here.”  Read his post in the “comment” section below.