Wednesday, January 05, 2011

New Edition of Huckleberry Finn Cuts the N-Word ...

Language warning: Offensive words will be mentioned, though not used, in this post.

... and, as this article explains, we don't mean "nonesuch." It replaces all 219 occurrences of "nigger" in the book with "slave". It also replaces "Injun" with "Indian".

The responsible party is Alan Gribben, a professor of English at the Montgomery campus of Auburn University.

One of the arguments in favor of the Bowdlerization that I have seen attributed to Prof. Gribben is, in my humble opinion, shockingly silly. In the above-linked article he is quoted as saying "Race matters in these books. It's a matter of how you express that in the 21st century." He says he is simply "updating" the book. This seems to mean that, because language changes, Mark Twain should be forced to speak our way.

Prof. Gribben is a teacher of literature: his job is to educate young people in the way others use the English language, especially people in the alien, sometimes-creepy world of the past. The soul of this process is the student extending her or his mind to see things from the other person's point of view. This is especially important when the other person seems off-putting to us and, yes, that includes people who have bad thoughts and do wrong things. There are several sorts of reasons why this mind-expanding process is crucial, and some of them are ethical reasons, having to do with respect and the overcoming of arrogance.

A more serious argument is one that has the sympathy of the author of the above article. Gribben's main concern, obscured by his talk of "updating" Twain, is that schools, out horror at fictional characters who casually say "nigger," are taking it off reading lists:*
... if this puts the book into the hands of kids who would not otherwise be allowed to read it due to forces beyond their control (overprotective parents and the school boards they frighten), then maybe we shouldn't be so quick to judge.

It's unfortunate, but is it really any more catastrophic than a TBS-friendly re-edit of "The Godfather," you down-and-dirty melon farmer?

There is an interesting issue here. How is replacing "nigger" with "slave" so that more schools will assign Huckleberry Finn different from replacing "motherfucker" with "melon farmer" so that "The Godfather" can be on a station that children might see?

The first thing to say about this is that our culture at present does not treat these two cases alike. Gribben is innovating. So it is at any rate not obvious that they are alike.

Second, there are a couple of obvious differences between the cases. One is that the controversial one is about education. If you can't see how that makes a difference, please re-read the third paragraph of this post. (And don't skip anything this time.)

The other obvious difference has to do with the point of the Bowdlerization in each case. In all of them we are, like the original Bowdlerizer, trying to protect someone from something. There are reasons to protect small children from a too-early exposure to a) sex and b) violence. Do these reasons apply in the Huck Finn case?

I don't think so. For one thing, students are not going to be reading Huck until high school, when they are plenty old enough to handle "nigger," along with material that is more shocking than that. If I were showing "The Godfather" to a high school class in film history or film criticism, I would think it is very important that "motherfucker" stay in the movie, along with ever shot in all the gruesome murders. (Again, see third paragraph.) If a student convinced me that s/he is really too sensitive for this sort of material, I would let them do an alternative assignment. As to the film itself, either show it or don't show it. Teaching a mutilated version of "The Godfather", just because of the rough language and shocking violence, is not a legitimate third alternative.

In addition, it makes a big difference what you are protecting people from. In the "Godfather" case we are protecting children from a too early exposure to certain things, mainly violence. "Motherfucker" is violent language, intended to hurt and shock. The thing about the use of "nigger" in Huck Finn is that it doesn't seem to be used in that way at all. It just feels like it to us. What we are protecting people from is the effort of moving from "to us" to "for them." In other words, we are protecting them from having to learn something. Teachers should not be protecting young people from things like that.
* Notice that these two arguments, both of which are attributed to Prof. Gribben in the press, lead to completely different conclusions. If the Updating Argument is right, then the old "Huckleberry Finn" is unsuitable to the Brave New World of the 21st Century. It has simply become a wrong book. Down the memory hole! On the other hand, if the Reading List Argument is right, then it only follows that we can Bowdlerize the text to protect the delicate sensibilities of American teenagers. [Insert snarky comment about American teenagers here.] As far as that is concerned, maybe the old version can stick around, to be read by adults who can take it. So, maybe -- not down the memory hole.


The Uncredible Hallq said...

"Motherfucker" is violent language, intended to hurt and shock. The thing about the use of "nigger" in Huck Finn is that it doesn't seem to be used in that way at all. It just feels like it to us. What we are protecting people from is the effort of moving from "to us" to "for them."

Is that right? Huckleberry Finn was intended to be a novel about characters who take nasty attitudes towards race for granted. The casual use of the word "nigger" may have been a part of that.

I've read some things suggesting that it was not considered offensive at the time, but I also get the impression that even in the antebellum period it wasn't a word an abolitionist would use, and Twain himself seems to have avoided it when writing in his own voice.

Lester Hunt said...

I could be wrong about this, but I have read the book a number of times and I believe the word is never used as a deliberate conscious insult. That's all I meant by what I was saying at that point.

As to the rest, you have a point. Thomas Carlyle's essay, "Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question" was, from what I have read of it, openly racist. J. S. Mill's response to it, on the other hand, was titled "The Negro Question." A coincidence? Of course not.

My impression is that it was considered informal English and for that reason, if used in a formal context, would indicate disrespect. If that is true, then the fact that people (including Jim, of course) use it casually is not in itself evidence of a racist culture.