Friday, January 7, 2011

What’s in a word—Mark Twain—sanitized?

Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer are once again under siege.  Over a hundred years after Twain’s death, both books will be released in February in a censored format- removing two derogatory racial slurs: ‘injun’ and ‘nigger.’ The editor of the new version, Alan Gribben of Auburn University at Montgomery, claims that he wants to change ‘niggr’ to ‘slave’ so no one will be hurt by the use of an epithet that would have been ever-present in Missouri in the 1820s and 1840s, which is when the books are set.

Gribben’s attempt to sanitize the text of Huckleberry Finn is akin to revisionist history. Once you begin “cleaning up” language that isn’t PC, where does it end? ? Do you reshape characters to meet our image of what the writer should have written or eliminate unpleasant facts so children aren’t upset? How do you maintain the integrity of literature once you start changing language?

An author’s words are sacred and meddling changes the author’s intent. We don’t have the right to change anything an author has written no matter how offensive it may seem in retrospect. Words are of the time they were written and that’s what gives them their importance and weight.
If we want to know what Mark Twain thought about words, here is a passage he wrote to George Bainton, 10/15/1888  “The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightening bug and the lightening.”

Once Huckleberry Finn is sanitized, readers are robbed of the opportunity to have important conversations on race. That is not an opportunity I am willing to concede, in the interest of presenting a different Huckleberry Finn that Twain never wrote.

Eliminating books from a school curriculum deprive students from being exposed to classics which inform us of past times, events, and mores of the day. It is the duty of teachers to put the stories they teach in a context, helping students understand the circumstances and events that were part of the environment where the story takes place. Shutting the door on harsh historical realities by not allowing them to be read and discussed is tantamount to pretending they did not exist. That is dishonest and short changes all readers.

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