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Sunday, January 9, 2011

Removing the N-word from Huckleberry Finn

The BBC, like a thousand or so other commentators on the arts, has published views on the bowdlerization of Mark Twain's classic, Huckleberry Finn.       

A new edition, coming out next month, has been edited by Twain scholar Professor Alan Gribben to remove the words 'nigger' and 'injun,' replacing them with 'slave' and 'Indian.'

People seem to be able to handle the tidying up up 'injun' (which indicates pronunciation rather than social attitude), but the removal of the N-word has infuriated many, who have let the publisher know about it in various ways. 

A valid point made is that Huckleberry Finn, first published in 1884, when discrimination was a part of everyday life, is anti-racist.  The constant repetition of the word, which is used 219 times in the book, is supposed to jar and make the reader uncomfortable.

There were plenty of racist words around then, just as there are today.  Is the next move for some academic to remove the word 'Jew' from Shakespeare's immortal Merchant of Venice?

'Jew' had nasty racial overtones then, and Shakespeare was making the same point that Twain made nearly 300 years later.

PS.  There are at least 26 instances of the N-word used in the same fashion in Tom Sawyer.  Is that going to be cleaned up, too?


Rick Spilman said...

I have a somewhat different take on the issue. There are 111,299 words in Huck Finn. For a decade or two, the appearance of one word, nigger, 219 times, has kept the book out of American classrooms and libraries. I am not overly bothered if the one offending word is replace by another, judged to be less offensive, as stupid as that replacement may be, if that means that the remaining 111,080 words are made more accessible to the kids (and adults) who really should be reading Huck Finn. I suspect that Sam Clemens himself might understand possibly even support the change. He did after all write that "In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then he made School Boards."

Joan Druett said...

That's certainly a valid argument, school boards being so timid. But 'slave'? I'm surprised it wasn't the acceptable modern version, 'Black'. But then, that takes us back to the era when 'Black' was replaced with the very awkward 'African American' which none of my Black friends ever found acceptable. (Some very happily and publicly describe themselves by the N-word.) Loved the quote from Twain. My favorite is the one about the word that is not quite right -- 'first cousin' to the more appropriate word. Or something like that. I must look up the actual quotation!

Rick Spilman said...

I would hope that Americans, in particular, will one day outgrown the irrational and hysterical fear of certain words. When Roger Ebert commented that "I'd rather be called a Nigger than a Slave", he was forced to apologize for using the word nigger. Few thought it worthwhile to consider the idea that he was expressing. They just started screaming that he had used the "N-word." A few years ago, a staffer working for the mayor of Washington DC was fired, and then rehired, for using the word "niggardly," a word which predates "nigger" by several centuries. "Nigger" has become become like "Voldemort" in Harry Potter, some sort of talismanic spell containing evil magic. It is bizarre and says nothing good about the intelligence of many Americans.

I agree with you that "slave" may not be a good choice, but it may prevent some folks from breaking out in apoplectic fits. If it results in Huck Finn being read more often, then I may not be enthusiastic, but I do support it. Under any circumstances, I doubt that any of us will remember Twain or his immortal Huck Finn for their skillful use of the word nigger. It seems a shame to get sidetracked over a single word, even if used 219 times, in a book that is fundamentally anti-racist.

Joan Druett said...

I totally agree with your argument that if it leads to more young people reading Huck, it is an excellent move. It's the pandering that puts a bad taste in your mouth. I loved the quote from Roger Ebert. My hero Frederick Douglass would certainly have echoed the sentiment. That reminds me of once when I needed to buy a copy of Douglass in California. Friends took me to an enormous used bookstore (was it in an aircraft hanger?), and the gent at the desk directed me to a distant corner where they shelved Black History. As I walked alone further and further into the gloom, I realized I was being followed, by four young Blacks built like rugby props. When I arrived at the shelves, they stopped, too. We looked at each other. Then one asked why I wanted a book about Black history. I told them I was writing the story of George Babcock, a runaway slave who shipped on a whaler and was tortured and murdered by the captain. They were fascinated, and demanded to know the details, so I told them. At the end, they all shook their heads in wonder. Then the spokesman said, "But why would a woman like you want to write about a Black man?" (He used the N-word.) I found that terribly sad. said...

Interesting discussion - at first read I was going to protest vehemently about the removal of the 'n' word thinking surely after 219 repetitions it would have an impact on even the toughest racist hide surely, as intended - or just a little dent even - but the discussion has persuaded me to perhaps agree, even if I disagree with censorship like this. It's fascinating that binaries like Black and White with all their inherent loading of dark and good etc, are okay whereas at least we recognise the 'n' word for what it is, surely.... it's blatant and shames the speaker - other more political correct words are often subtly loaded in a way that prevents debate or interrogation. Toni Morrison's 'Paradise' investigates this with "they shot the white woman first" but you never quite know who the white woman is in a novel with only one white woman in the 'all-black' town of Ruby.

Anonymous said...

Hmmmm. To claim that "Shakespeare was making the same point that Twain made nearly 300 years later" is not only a gross misinterpretation of Shakespeare's intent in The Merchant of Venice, but also an example of the kind of p.c. falsification you seem to be criticizing!