Archive for January 5th, 2011

The beginning and the end: Fishkin’s revamped editorial on the n-word and Huck Finn

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011


The latest round of the n-word controversy started with NYC Councilman Charles Barron’s suggestion that Huckleberry Finn be banned from schools, as we discussed in our Dec. 30 report about Shelley Fisher Fishkin‘s editorial in the New York Daily News on that topic.  Perhaps it will end, now, with Shelley’s revamped editorial, reconfigured to discuss the the publication of Alan Gribben‘s edition of Huckleberry Finn with NewSouth.  The link is published on the Daily News‘ homepage today.

An excerpt from “Take the n-word out of ‘Huck Finn’? It’s an insult to Mark Twain – and to American history“:

Fishkin (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

“Sanitizing the language which aided and abetted white America’s denial of the humanity of black Americans from the nation’s founding doesn’t change that history. It papers it over and allows us to dodge its rawness.

Facing that history in all its offensiveness is crucial to understanding it and transcending it, and literature is uniquely positioned to help us do that. …

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

Perhaps the controversy will end now.  But don’t hold your breath.

Postscript: Just got an interesting p.o.v. from Jeff Sypeck:

You know, if I were a publisher looking to defend this new, n-free version of Huck Finn, I’d send a couple of enterprising interns to the library, and to Google, to research and catalog the history of adaptations of the novel. I suspect there’s a long history of retellings–comic books, kids’ books, cartoons, etc.–that sanitize the language in much the same way. The publisher might at least have been ready to argue from precedent.


That said, I was pleased to find a 1985 interview with (the great) Roger Miller about his musical adaptation, Big River, and the necessary use of That Word. “I hate to even say it, it’s so far from my spirit,” he told the Chicago Tribune, “but we have to use it because it’s in the novel. Huck is a young boy who, being a kid, doesn’t have all those prejudiced feelings and, being a kid, he hears the grown-ups say all this stuff that he hasn’t grown into yet. So the book shows the innocence of youth and the wisdom of the black man, and it makes for a great friendship. They become like two fiddles that play together. I never got a chance to write about things like that in my music business.”

Interestingly, when Big River was staged in Utah earlier this year, the producers got permission to eliminate half of the uses of That Word, but they were proud enough of keeping the other half in the script that the director could say, “You don’t make apologies for it”!

Huckleberry Fi (n’s removed) — continued

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011

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.