Deliver Us From Historical Reality

05 Jan

I’m certainly not going to sit around staunchly defending the dread N-word.  Or even the word “Injun,” which oddly, you are allowed to say without a childish code name.

But sure, I’ll spend 800 words or so roundly ridiculing Alan Gribben, a Mark Twain scholar who according to this article right here, has spearheaded an effort to produce a new version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, scrubbed clean of both of those horrifying words. 

“Race matters in these books,” Gribben told Publisher’s Weekly. “It’s a matter of how you express that in the 21st century.”

Now, since I’ve seen the Mark Twain Star Trek episode nearly ten times, I’m something of a Mark Twain scholar myself, so I’m happy to help out one of my confused peers.

You see, I don’t think teaching or studying Huck Finn is a matter of how you express it in the 21st century.  I think that Mark Twain was expressing it, in the 19th century, and that’s what you’re teaching or studying. 

Sure, I’ll bet there’s a market for a sanitized version of the classic – closed-minded morons.  By all means, it’s America, knock yourself out.  You could offer other moron-friendly features, like rounded corners so nobody hurts themselves with it, and a big sticker on the cover which reads “Do Not Eat!”

Hooray for you, Gribben.  It feels like you’re trying to bait me into a First Amendment debate, but nobody’s trying to suppress the original, so there’s no debate to have.  You’re just a producing a new, edited version, like any network airing Beverly Hills Cop, complete with Eddie Murphy going, “Shooooooot.”

In fact, the article makes a big hilarious joke out of this very concept – editing a classic.

Of course, the author uses an actual classic, suggesting that changing out the N-Word in Huck Finn is nothing crazier than airing an edited version of The Godfather.  Then it makes a joke about down and dirty melon farmers – an example of how profanity in the original is changed to something  innocuous and silly in the edited version.

Oddly, that’s supposed to be the author’s way of pointing out that it’s perfectly cool and funny to screw around with classic works of art.  Seems like the opposite to me – what a distracting and asinine way to sanitize the dialogue of an iconic literary mobster.

After illustrating how absurd such sanitizing swap-outs can become, the author then strangely concludes, “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?”

Seems to me, if your students are not mature enough to handle it, then you don’t assign it, right?  I don’t like murder, either, but I’m not going to turn Shakespeare’s assassination scene from Julius Caeser into a pillow fight.  Because that would be jarringly stupid, and also a distinctly different story.

That’s the second part that bothers me.  “As long as it doesn’t affect the original.”

You’re telling me that swapping out possibly the most historically relevant word in the book with the word “slave” – which doesn’t even mean the same thing – would not affect the book?

I don’t want to have a big debate about theme and the use of race and all that.  This guy’s a Twain scholar, and I’m sure he’d love to debate that sort of stuff all night long.  I just don’t think any of that’s relevant – Twain wrote the book.  The best way to be sure that his novel is intact thematically is to leave every word exactly where it is.

Because you might be a Twain scholar, Gribben, but you’re not Mark Twain.  Those who can’t do, teach, as they say – and you didn’t write this book.  Mark Twain did.  So kindly get the hell out of his way.

Huck Finn was genuinely Jim’s friend, you know.  That, coupled with his overtly racist language is a paradox and my guess is, it was on purpose.  Huck Finn didn’t go to college in the 90’s, he was a hillbilly from the 19th Century South.  Huck Finn doesn’t watch his mouth, and he’s ignorant of the destructive nature of the language he uses.  You change those two things, and you changed the character.

It’s noble, I guess, that you want to put the books “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)”

Except overprotective parents shouldn’t run the show, and those kids have long lives ahead of them.  They can grow up and move away from their overprotective parents and then read the book, without the PC rewrite.  I mean by that argument, we ought to get busy on every single classic out there, scrub ’em up.

You knock yourself out, sure.  You can make a pop-up version in which all the characters are bunnies, if you want, and I doubt anyone can stop you.  Certainly I’m not ready to take to the streets with a “Bring Back The N-Word” sign – have at it.

I guess I’ll just have to be content  with announcing for the record that this is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard.  I am so pleased to have enough faith in my children that I can allow them to read great works of literature without running it by a censor. 

The only problem is, it’s dangerous, trying to sanitize the past in the name of protecting us all from historical and literary reality.  The sooner we all forget the past, the sooner we can all get on with repeating it.  I don’t think sitting around watching Gribben whitewash this particular fence is the right thing to do.


Posted by on January 5, 2011 in News/Commentary


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11 responses to “Deliver Us From Historical Reality

  1. michaeleriksson

    January 5, 2011 at 11:48 pm

    “Huck Finn was genuinely Jim’s friend, you know. That, coupled with his overtly racist language is a paradox and my guess is, it was on purpose.”

    My own reading of these books are long in the past, so I am understandably vague on the details. However, the only “racist” thing I remember is specifically the use of words like “nigger”. Did you have something else in mind?

    (I ask because these words are not racist per se, but were the standard words of the day—used even by Jim himself.)

    • Tom Chalfant

      January 6, 2011 at 12:04 am

      I think the words were still racist per se – that’s just the point. Racism was the standard of the day. Taking the word out seems to water down the everpresent racism of the that point in American history.

      Now, I could be wrong about the paradox being on purpose, I was pretty serious about the Star Trek episode.

      • michaeleriksson

        January 6, 2011 at 1:45 am

        It is, of course, possible that the word was already racist at the time. (A little before my days…) However, it is not the word used that counts—but the intent behind it. If a white person uses the word “nigger” in everyday speech today, we can almost certainly draw the conclusion that he is a racist. (Anyone who is not is likely to go out of his way to avoid it.) Back then, this was different and I doubt that most people (at least among the uneducated or in certain areas of the US) saw the word as being no worse than e.g. the “black” today. Certainly, no firm conclusions could be drawn from the use of the word.

        (It is true that the society was racist, but that is ultimately a different issue.)

      • Tom Chalfant

        January 6, 2011 at 2:50 am

        Well, okay, I’ll go ahead and agree that no firm conclusions could be drawn from the use of the word – and if that’s the case, then why would we be comfortable removing it?

        You just agreed that it was a racist society but I don’t see why it’s a different issue. The word itself was a reflection of the racist society, especially if as you say, it wasn’t necessarily always used by racists. The fact that they were able to use a such a racially discriminatory and degrading word – and it was both of those things, to be sure – and be unaware of its destructive nature, is my point.

      • michaeleriksson

        January 7, 2011 at 7:46 am

        The word it self was not a reflection of anything, but just a word with an etymology going back to the Spanish word for … black. Similarly, in my native Sweden, the word “neger” (with the same etymology) was the standard word until the second half of the 20th century. (Sometime during this second half, it suddenly became an “evil” word to be avoided at all cost—including renaming the traditional chocolate snack “negerbollar”.)

        Look at it this way: The connotations that the word “nigger” has to day are a result of its use in earlier days—who used it and with what intent. If the standard word had been “tom”, “chalfant”, or “michael” that word would almost certainly carry the same connotations of a racial slur and a highly offensive term today. Conversely, had the society not been racist, “nigger” might still be the standard word today.

        The Wikipedia article on euphemisms contains a number of examples of similar developments, including a discussion of “euphemism treadmills”. Cf.

      • Tom Chalfant

        January 7, 2011 at 10:33 pm

        Well, I’m all for a friendly disagreement and you certainly sound like you have a background in this, but I do disagree. I don’t think the word suddenly became evil, I think that society began shifting away from the racist state it was in before to an awareness of how destructive the word and the attitudes behind it are. So I think the word reflects a great deal about society – the fact that it was acceptable then and not now, for instance.

        It meant more than “black.” It was a dehumanizing word to denote the markedly lower class of the human being it was attributed to.

        Surely you don’t mean that when someone used that word to describe a black man, that it was the same, objective thing as calling a white man “White?”

      • Tom Chalfant

        January 8, 2011 at 3:53 pm

        Also, here’s Craig Hotchkiss, Educational Program Manager at the Mark Twain House and Museum, who strongly disagrees with your assessment of Twain’s use of the word, and what the word meant at the time:

      • michaeleriksson

        January 8, 2011 at 11:11 pm

        As an aside, “sudden” refers only to the change in Sweden, where topics like slavery and racial segregation have a far lesser relevance and where the idea that “neger” would be a evil word probably was imported from the US and gained importance within a time-span of just a few years—which is quite sudden from a linguistic perspective.

        In the main issue, why do you feel that the word at that time was dehumanizing or meant more than if another word (e.g. “tom”, likely even “black”) had been used? Notably, the use of a modified Spanish word (as opposed to a native pendant to “white”) need not mean anything, considering the influence Spain had in matters relating to colonisation and trade between Europe and the rest of the world in earlier times. Because I am considering writing a post discussing related topics, it would be valuable to know your exact reasoning.

        Concerning the article you link to: The disagreement is not that strong, is not supported by actual arguments, and may merely reflect the interpretation of the work today (“racism so terribly palpable to modern readers”).

  2. Gregory Wilcox

    January 6, 2011 at 1:02 am

    I’m much too lazy to read the original article. I might try to get someone else to do it for me. I assume the article actual presents this as re-writing the original. That’s just foolish. If they can’t come up with a new story to tell then they shouldn’t be telling stories. If they want to tell a similar story with a modern twist then she shouldn’t be calling it Huck Finn. Find a new name, put a credit in stating it’s based on Twain’s novel. If they want it to be current they should use a runaway emo kid and an illegal migrant worker. There’s plenty of cultural misunderstanding in that duo. I wouldn’t throw either one of them on a raft or anything but I’m sure they could find an unattended car with the keys in and the engine running to get them down the highway. Any ideas for the title?

  3. Brian

    January 6, 2011 at 1:23 pm

    This disgusts me. There are some things I would like to rewrite. How do I go about doing this Tom?


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