Tuesday, January 4, 2011

"Leave Poor Huck Alone"

In an act of misguided intent, Alan Gribben (Auburn University) has edited a new version of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, expunging the "N" word from the text in the name of racial sensitivity and with the hope of creating new and younger audiences for the "boy books," including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Is whiting out the most hurtful word in the English language a victory for censorship or a necessary corrective in American letters? 



African American scholar Randall Kennedy explains Twain's use of the "N" word in his etymological essay Nigger: The Strange Case of a Troublesome Word:  "By putting nigger in white characters' mouths, the author is not branding blacks, but rather branding whites." Teachers' responsibility obligates them to lead students to this understanding, even though the word, arguably, is the most hurtful moniker in the English language. 


Although I do admire Gibben for risking his academic reputation and for using Twain's original holographs when editing, he erases much of Twain's condemnation of institutional racism; thus he obliterates an important part of Reconstruction and Jim Crow history. 


More importantly, HF with the "N" word is "a text that confronts so dramatically the ugliness of slavery and racism," says Kennedy. Gibbon correctly states that "Race matters" in Huck. Twain wanted it to matter in the nineteenth century too, which is why he uses the word. The author wanted his white audience to "subvert, not to reinforce racism," argues Kennedy. Yet Gibben justifies his changing the "N" word to slave thusly: "It's a matter of how you express that in the 21st century." However, eradicating the novel of its most potent anti-racist diction essentially all but kills the satirical heart and soul of the novel.


Fortunately, publisher New South, Inc welcomes the impending debate publication of the new edition will prompt: "If the publication sparks good debate about how language impacts learning or about the nature of censorship or the way in which racial slurs exercise their baneful influence, then our mission in publishing this new edition of Twain’s works will be more emphatically fulfilled."


Yet, messing with Huck's language places other texts at risk of the same fate, including those by African American writers. I teach Octavia Butler's Kindred, a contemporary African-American novel that also uses the "N" word, and that in doing so articulates an important lesson about the difference in the way white folks use it versus its usage by African Americans. 


Like Grant Wood's "American Gothic," a novel is a work of art and the author is an artist. The public outcry would be deafening if an art critic were to edit "American Gothic" in the name of making the farmers more modern, although we can appreciate a good parody of the painting as these images show.  Why, then should we embrace such a significant alteration of HF?




  


Well intentioned scholars who want to mess with Huck and who rationalize doing so in the name of political correctness forget Twain's admonition to "leave poor Huck alone." He's suffered enough. 

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