Archive for 2010

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

Friday, December 31st, 2010


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.

Dick Gregory, Charles Barron, Huck Finn, and the n-word

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

Wants to ban Twain?

Mark Twain was “so far ahead of his time he shouldn’t even be talked about on the same day as other people,” according to comedian and author Dick Gregory.

His friend, Charles Barron, apparently doesn’t agree.  The New York City Councilman and former Black Panther took offense at a Brooklyn principal’s attempt to stop a volume of sexually explicit poems written by Barron’s goddaughter, Tylibah Washington, from being distributed at school.  “I find it interesting that Huckleberry Finn is a classic when it says [the n-word] 200 times. Tylibah’s book is the opposite. It’s very inspiring. I’d like to see Huckleberry Finn banned.”

Shelley Fisher Fishkin, writing in today’s New York Daily News, defended Huck, and she packs a heavy punch [an updated version of the editorial accommodates the latest n-word flap: it’s here — ED.]

“Barron claims to have entered politics to fight bigotry and to protest the sidelining of black voices in the cultural conversation. It’s ironic, therefore, that the principle he’s invoking to ban Mark Twain’s anti-racist classic — that books filled with the n-word shouldn’t be taught – would also ban from the nation’s classrooms many of the greatest and most inspiring works by black writers in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Naughty poet?

The n-word is key to critiques of racism found in nonfiction from Frederick Douglass’ “Narrative,” to W.E.B. Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk, to Richard Wright’s Black Boy, to James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, to The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

It is just as central to critiques of racism in Paul Laurence Dunbar‘s classic story, ‘The Ingrate,’ and Countee Cullen‘s poem ‘Incident,’ not to mention novels including Richard Wright‘s Native Son, Ralph Ellison‘s Invisible Man, David Bradley‘s Chaneysville Incident, Ernest Gaines‘s A Lesson Before Dying – and, yes, Twain’s Huck Finn.

For to expose a racist society for what it is, you have to show racists as they are, speaking as they would speak.

The gifted black satirist and sportswriter, the late Ralph Wiley, who claimed Twain as his most important teacher, wrote that ‘there is not one use of [the n-word] in Huck Finn that I consider inauthentic, and I am hard to please that way.'”

She also notes the writers inspired by Twain, including Kenzaburo Oe, Japan’s Nobel Laureate.  David Bradley, who won the Pen/Faulkner prize for The Chaneysville Incident, credits Twain with having inspired him to become a writer in the first place, says Fishkin.

And of course she mentions Dick Gregory, who we wrote about here commenting on his best-selling autobiography Nigger (excerpt from Gregory’s essay in Fishkin’s new book, The Mark Twain Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Works):

“People were afraid to ask for my book, and bookstore owners were afraid to put it in their stores.  Some Black folks would go into a bookstore and say, ‘I want one of Dick Gregory’s what-you-call-it.’  They just couldn’t say the word. And White folks would say, ‘You named that book a title I just can’t say.’ Or they would complain, saying, ‘I just can’t stand the name of your new book.’ I didn’t hear White folks complaining about the word nigger when I was growing up.  I only heard them using it.  If they had complained about the word nigger in the past, there would not have been a need to name my book Nigger. Titling my book Nigger meant I was taking it back from White folks.  Mark Twain threw it up in the air and I grabbed it.”

Quite a wrap-up for the Year of Twain.

Postscript: Just got a note from Patrick Kurp of Anecdotal Evidence:

I just read your Twain post. Well done. I visited Hannibal, Mo., Twain’s home from the age of four, in the summer of 1990. The street ends at the Mississippi River. At the foot of the street, which was a boat landing stood one of those cast-iron historical markers on a post with all the expected stuff about Twain and Huck, etc. Mentioned on the marker was “[ ] Jim.” The brackets represent, obviously, “Nigger,” but a piece of steel plate had been welded over the word. Every literate person who looked that sign saw the offending word, in effect, underlined, italicized and written in boldface. Its censoring screamed it out louder than six letters ever could.

By the way, I spent a day with Dick Gregory, around 1984. I was a reporter in Richmond, Ind., the home of Earlham College where he was speaking. I had a ball with him. He was strident about vegetarianism and so forth but I remember him, during a lecture, sticking his hand in a bag of barbecue potato chips, getting it all greasy and red, and saying, “Look at this shit. What is this shit?” A naturally funny guy.

Some of us over at the Book Haven are rather strident about vegetarianism ourselves…

What? No Kepler’s?

Wednesday, December 29th, 2010

10,000 square feet of books

On Christmas Eve, Flavorwire named the top ten U.S. bookstores here. The article begins in this user-friendly way:  “Bookstores are dying. They’re dying because of jerks who are too cheap to buy a hardcover, or even a paperback, and too lazy to get a library card.”  Odd, for an article that is running online.

Two bookstores in Seattle made the cut, and Powell’s of Portland.  San Francisco’s City Lights is named — no surprise there, either:

Justly famous: City Lights

“Started by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin, City Lights Booksellers and Publishers in San Francisco, CA offers the best in classic and newly-released literature. Their claim to fame is publishing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems then suffering through the resulting obscenity trial. After all that, the store was designated a San Francisco landmark. Supplementing their in-store performances and promotion is their delightful podcast with news on releases and upcoming events.”

Kepler's in 1955

The comments are filled with protest.  Several nominate San Francisco’s Green Apple Books and one reader voted for Diane Goodman’s Ocean Avenue Books.  But, surprise:  no Cody’s and Moe’s from Berkeley.  And … what?  No Kepler’s?

After all, the fame of Kepler’s is international.  Salman Rushdie, the Shah of Blah himself, lamented during a recent visit that he had “never made it to Kepler’s before” and added “I am delighted to finally find my way to Menlo Park.”

Roy Kepler

Kepler’s was founded in May 1955 by peace activist Roy Kepler. The Grateful Dead gave live shows there early in their career, and they, along with folk singer Joan Baez, often made appearances at the bookstore.  (Management assumed by Clark Kepler, Roy’s son, in 1980.)  Customer loyalty is fierce.

In 1990 Publishers Weekly named Kepler’s “Bookseller of the Year.” However, by 1996, large discount warehouses and were revolutionizing the bookselling business. Kepler’s closed its doors on August 31, 2005.  That’s where the fierce customer loyalty kicked in:  The local community responded with demonstrations. Thousands gathered on the expanse of what is now known as “Kepler’s Plaza” to express support and protest the loss.

The bookstore re-opened in October 2005.

Kepler’s story is told in the documentary, Paperback Dreams, which aired on PBS, tells the tale of two landmark independent booksellers and their struggle to survive. Cody’s and Kepler’s Books helped launch a counter-culture, and for 50 years have protected free speech and celebrated intellectual inquiry. At one time or another, the owners of these stores were harassed, vandalized, threatened, and even suffered acts of terrorism for simply selling books. But their future is uncertain in our fast digital world.  You can order the DVD here.

Procrastination: Jonathan Franzen’s superglue solution, and Victor Hugo buck nekkid

Tuesday, December 28th, 2010

Better with clothes on, I expect

I am supposed to be writing a wise and insightful essay on a poet over the next few days.  Supposed to be.

James Surowiecki’s recent article in the New Yorker points out the basic irrationality of procrastination.  We know we need to cut the grass, pay the traffic fine, study for the exam, meet the deadline, finish the essay …

Of course, writing is 90 percent procrastination, and I find I have to lock myself into solitary squalor as the dishes pile up, putzying about the house in bathrobed anxiety, letting phone calls roll to the answering machine, looking up random words in the dictionary, seeking for odd small tasks to distract (giving the pills to the dog, taking coffee cups to the kitchen).  But there are only so many snacks one can prepare for oneself; and too much caffeine to jack oneself up to a simulacrum of creativity might eventually require medical intervention.  Above all, I must be careful that I don’t do anything that appears to be work.  That will successfully justify non-writing.  And of course, one must limit checking email to only 25 times every half hour.  Katherine Ellison, who (ironically enough) has just published Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention, knows what I am talking about:

I finally had to acknowledge that I was helpless in the face of my addiction, which has had me, especially in recent weeks, tapping my e-mail “refresh” button like a lab rat trying to get cocaine …  Why labor over a metaphor when I can check my moment-to-moment ranking on Amazon? Why struggle with a transition when Google Alerts may be telling me at this very moment that my book was featured on yet another tiny blog?

What makes it all worse is that my publisher has encouraged me to leap into the mind-sucking Internet vortex: to put up a Facebook page and post on it regularly, to join LinkedIn, send e-mail “blasts” and tweet away. And this raises a particular problem, in that my book chronicles my yearlong effort to curb extraneous distractions so as to focus on what’s truly important.

She points out that bestselling novelist Jonathan Franzen has confessed to using superglue to block the Ethernet connection on his computer. Ellison has resorted to an internet-blocking program called Freedom, which, for a one-time fee of $10, will shut off your portal to the outside world for up to eight hours.  Wizard Fred Stutzman has sold his program to more than 75,000 people.  His new program, Anti-Social,  shuts off your access to top time-wasting sites including Facebook, LinkedIn, Friendster, StumbleUpon, EHarmony, DateHookup and OkCupid.

Surowiecki tackles the problem at its roots:  Why do we procrastinate?  He calls it “a complex mixture of weakness, ambition, and inner conflict”:

… the person who makes plans and the person who fails to carry them out are not really the same person: they’re different parts of what the game theorist Thomas Schelling called “the divided self.” Schelling proposes that we think of ourselves not as unified selves but as different beings, jostling, contending, and bargaining for control. Ian McEwan evokes this state in his recent novel Solar: “At moments of important decision-making, the mind could be considered as a parliament, a debating chamber. Different factions contended, short- and long-term interests were entrenched in mutual loathing. Not only were motions tabled and opposed, certain proposals were aired in order to mask others. Sessions could be devious as well as stormy.” Similarly, Otto von Bismarck said, “Faust complained about having two souls in his breast, but I harbor a whole crowd of them and they quarrel. It is like being in a republic.”

My metaphor, the internal parliament, has been stolen.  I’m sure of it.  I’ve been saying that for years.  It will never be mine again. Maybe I should think of filing a lawsuit today.  That’s what I should be doing today…

All is forgiven, however, when Surowiecki drops this gem:   Victor Hugo would write naked and tell his valet to hide his clothes so that he’d be unable to go outside when he was supposed to be writing.”

Back to work…

Postscript 12/29: The trick, I think, is to learn to procrastinate faster

“Life itself is the gift…” — Forrest Church on gratitude, with a few words from Joseph Brodsky, too

Monday, December 27th, 2010

Calculating the odds

The theme over at Anecdotal Evidence today is gratitude.  It brought to mind an article I read in Stanford Magazine a few years back by Forrest Church, author of Love and Death, who at that time was struggling with a particularly virulent form of esophageal cancer.

Under such circumstances, many ask, “Why me?”  “What did I do to deserve this?”  But Church reckoned differently.  We forget, he said, “that we did nothing to deserve being placed in the way of trouble and joy in the first place. The odds against each one of us being here this morning are so mind-staggering that they cannot be computed.”

“Beating the odds, I slowly began to realize, had nothing to do with the stakes of the mortality table,” he wrote.  “The truth of the matter struck me with tremendous force. I’d beaten the odds already, won the house on a zillions-to-1 wager 58 years before, the moment I was born.”  By his own admission, the odds “cannot be computed,” yet he tried:

“Consider the odds more intimately. Your parents had to couple at precisely the right moment for the one possible sperm to fertilize the one possible egg that would result in your conception. Right then, the odds were still a million to 1 against your being the answer to the question your biological parents were consciously or unconsciously posing. And that’s just the beginning of the miracle. The same unlikely happenstance must repeat itself throughout the generations. Going back 10 generations, this miracle must repeat itself 1,000 times—1¼ million times going back only 20 generations. That’s right. From the turn of the 12th century until today, we each have, mathematically speaking, approximately 2½ million direct ancestors. This remarkable pyramid turns in upon itself, of course, with individual ancestors participating in multiple lines of generation, until we trace ourselves back to when our ur-ancestors, the founding couple, whom each one of us carries in our bones, began the inexorable process that finally gave birth to us all, kith and kin, blood brothers and sisters of the same mighty mystery.

“And that’s only the egg and sperm part of the miracle. Remember, each of these ancestors had to live to puberty. For those whose bloodline twines through Europe—and there were like tragedies around the globe—not one of your millions of direct forebears died as children during the great plague, for instance, which mowed down half of Europe with its mighty scythe.”

Church considers his favorite etymology: “human, humane, humanitarian, humility, humble, humus. Dust to dust. And in between, erupting into consciousness—into pain and hope and trust and fear and grief and love—the miracle of life.” He concludes that “without even trying, you’ve already won the only race that really matters. Unconsciously, yet omnipresent, you ran the gauntlet of stars and genomes to assume your full, nothing less than miraculous, place in the creation. Being alive to love and hurt, to fail and recover, to prove your grit and show compassion, that is life’s true secret.”

For me, Joseph Brodsky‘s statement on gratitude is unmatched.  His early poem “1 January 1965” (translated by George Kline):

The Wise Men will unlearn your name.
Above your head no star will flame.
One weary sound will be the same —
the hoarse roar of the gale.
The shadows fall from your tired eyes
as your lone bedside candle dies,
for here the calendar breeds nights
till stores of candles fail.

What prompts this melancholy key?
A long familiar melody.
It sounds again. So let it be.
Let it sound from this night.
Let it sound in my hour of death —
as gratefulness of eyes and lips
for that which sometimes makes us lift
our gaze to the far sky.

You glare in silence at the wall.
Your stocking gapes: no gift at all.
It’s clear that you are now to old
to trust in good saint Nick;
that it’s too late for miracles.
– But suddenly, lifting your eyes
to heaven’s light, you realize:
your life is a sheer gift.

Oprah Winfrey, cheese, Mother Teresa, and the homeless of Haight Street

Sunday, December 26th, 2010

Too easy a target

I was shocked, shocked during the holiday season when a friend told me he had never read Charles Dickens.  So, motivated by, of all things, Oprah Winfrey, I made sure  A Tale of Two Cities was among his Christmas presents.  No, no, not Oprah’s cheesy edition, but the annotated Penguin one.

Cheesy edition… that’s just it, isn’t it?  Many of Oprah’s endeavors justly inspire ridicule.  She is too easy a target.  So The New Republic’s lambasting her for choosing Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities as her December Book Club selection was, well, a bit cheesy in itself.  Hillary Kelly explodes:

“On December 2, as Oprah Winfrey stood on the stage of her TV show, tightly clutching her newest Book Club selection to her chest so that no one could see its title, she proclaimed in her singular, scale-climbing voice, ‘Dickeeeens for the hooolidaaaays!’ Oprah declared that she has ‘always wanted to read Dickens over the holidays,’ and ‘now [she] can.’ Never mind that she could have read Dickens whenever she wanted, seeing as his books have been popular for more than a century. Never mind that Oprah hadn’t chosen A Christmas Carol, The Chimes, or any of Dickens’s other Christmas tales. Never mind that neither Great Expectations nor A Tale of Two Cities, the books she did choose, have anything to do with the holidays. Our shepherd has spoken, and we must blindly follow.

Kelly is concerned that Oprah Winfrey’s “sentimentalized pitch” will result in “a frightening number of purchases.”  Winfrey, you see, admits she has never actually read Dickens.  Kelly continues:

“She has asked millions of people to follow her into some of the more difficult prose to come out of the nineteenth century—prose she knows nothing about. Put simply, a TV host whose maxim is to ‘live your best life’ is not an adequate guide through the complicated syntax of Dickens, not because she lacks the intelligence—she is quite clearly a woman of savvy—but because her readings of the texts are so one-dimensional.”

She’s not done:

“Even more confusingly, Oprah’s comments about Dickens making for cozy reading in front of a winter fire misinterprets the large-scale social realism of his work. It stands to reason that her sentimentalized view of Dickens might stem from A Christmas Carol—probably his most family-friendly read and one of his most frequently recounted tales. But her quaint view of Victoriana, as she’s expressed it, belies an ignorance of Dickens’s authorial intentions. Indeed, both A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations are dark and disturbing, with elaborate ventures into the seedy underbelly of London and the bloody streets of Paris. How can we trust a literary guide who, ignorant of the terrain ahead, promises us it will be light and easy?”

I am glad I did not have Kelly around in my own adolescence.  As a girl of about 10 or 11, I picked up (you guessed it) Tale of Two Cities. Undaunted by its “complicated syntax,” I read it straight through to the scaffold. And I expect from the little I know of Winfrey’s background, she might have a better grasp of a work that is “dark and disturbing” than Kelly herself.

I was gratified to see the readership of the New Republic nailed the implicit elitism of Kelly’s remarks:

“Wow. ‘Cadres of women from around the globe’ will discover that Dickens can be tough sledding. I imagine that more than a few, however, will muddle through on their own and actually get something more out of it than a cup of hot cocoa. And it’s really this, I suspect, that you find so ‘appalling.'”

Dickens at the podium

Another writes:

“This article strikes me as deeply wrongheaded. So what if Oprah has a silly, narcissistic view of literature? If she gets her fans in their thousands and millions to go out and buy books, some of them authentically great literature, I say more power to her in this age of illiteracy! And by what right does Ms. Kelly sneeringly dismiss all those book-buying fans as dunderheads who could not possibly understand a “great book” unless it is spoon-fed to them by a Certified Literature Professor? Surely some of them are capable of reading and thinking for themselves, and possibly even having insights that have never occurred to Hillary Kelly! If the Western canon is to have any claim to universality, it must be that it is potentially accessible to everyone–that is the great lesson I took away from my immersion in the University of Chicago’s Robert Hutchins-inspired “core curriculum” in the humanities. Or are we to lock the gates of the Temple of Literature to all who do not have a Ph.D. in literary theory? That, surely, would be a far worse catastrophe for the human spirit than Oprah telling people to have a cup of hot chocolate while reading Charles Dickens!”

And I’m not sure today’s world is so very far from the one Dickens describes.  A couple years back, Rush Rehm and I were discussing people’s general reluctance to engage in volunteer work.  I had recently tried to help out at the Stanford Hospital, and been given forms to fill out and asked to sign on to a training schedule — impossible then, and even less possible now.  Rush extolled the organization of Mother Teresa and her nuns.  He told me that if you show up on the doorstep, her nuns will stick a broom or mop in your hands, no questions asked, no names taken.  It’s not grandiose stuff.  Washing a few dishes at the AIDS hospice in Pacifica may not be making the world safe for democracy, but I think Dickens would approve.  They use you while you are there, and welcome you back whenever you return.  That might be one of the most remarkable features of the whole outfit.

So, on a very rainy Christmas morning, I made my occasional trek to the Golden Gate Park, where they feed the homeless, with several bundles of new socks for the dispossessed.  They go through them so quickly living in the San Francisco chill.  I never found the nuns yesterday, but I did notice that the homeless seem to be everywhere this Christmas — not only in the park, but up and down Haight Street, and Oak Avenue, and everywhere hunkered under makeshift cardboard, broken umbrellas, and stolen shopping carts.

A quick stop in Pacifica delivered the socks, and the nuns greeted their wet and slightly manic visitor with their usual unruffled and unhurried calm and friendliness.

I also delivered my Christmas greetings to the gray and magnificent Pacific, my touchstone — and returned to my modest Palo Alto life that is, by any world standard, and particularly the by the standard on Haight Street, unquestionably luxurious.