Just Another Guy with Opinions

Mark Twain Gets a Make-Over

Posted by shadmia on January 6, 2011

Two of Mark Twain’s books about mid 19th century life, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, are getting a revision to reflect the sensitivity of using a word derogatory to Black people. In all the mentions of this change, in all the publications on this topic, I have yet to see this word written in print or spoken in audio format. It is of course the “N-word”. However in order to be blunt, shocking, forthright, controversial (or whatever other word you can think of) I will not be using the “N-word”.

I will be using the word nigger, not only because this is the word everyone means by the “N-word”, but because I do not believe that merely using the word nigger makes one a racist, as is implied by the mass media’s avoidance of using it. I will agree that the word nigger has an almost magical property to it that instantly transforms the user into a racist. It is the atomic bomb of words to use against Black people. It is not used in polite conversation as its very use is to cause grievous harm to the recipient or somehow taint the author……I do not subscribe to these sentiments and refuse to be bound by them.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a novel that contains the word nigger a total of 219 times. In Tom Sawyer nigger appears only four times. This has caused these books to be banned from many school districts because of the language, fearing it would be offensive to a number of people.

Alan Gribben, a 69-year-old English professor at Auburn University Montgomery, is working with NewSouth Books in Alabama to publish a revised version of Mark Twain’s two books, replacing the word nigger with the word slave. He said the word puts the books in danger of joining the list of literary classics that Twain once humorously defined as those “which people praise and don’t read.

“It’s such a shame that one word should be a barrier between a marvelous reading experience and a lot of readers,” Gribben said.

However, many disagree with professor Gribben. Professor Stephen Railton at the University of Virginia, said Gribben was well respected, but called the new version “a terrible idea.

“The language depicts America’s past, Railton said, and the revised book was not being true to the period in which Twain was writing.” The language depicts America’s past, Railton said, and the revised book was not being true to the period in which Twain was writing.”

Barbara Jones, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association had this to say:

“The ALA really condemns this kinds of censorship, and – make no mistake about it – we believe this is censorship.  Any expurgation of words is censorship and is a real disservice to the freedom to read. What this does is deny access to the entire work, and that is a real tragedy.”

“Twain used the ‘n-word’ deliberately because he hated racism and he hated slavery,” Jones continued. “Children who read this book deserve the chance to read the book thoughtfully and in its entirety and to understand and to ask questions about why (Twain) used the word and then allow teachers, parents and librarians to answer their questions.”

Joseph Podlasek, executive director of the American Indian Center in Chicago, had this to say:

“I think it is truly time for a great piece of work to be edited and respectful of people. Kids should read about Native Americans and other cultures without a stereotypical twist or derogatory insult toward the first people of these lands.”

“I believe this edit is a very positive move for the kids of today and future generations,” Podlasek added. “We have not felt good about adding a book like this to our suggested reading to the over 75 American Indian youth that are part of our (teen) program.”

The Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Conn., offers education for teachers on how best to teach the book and its complexities. Craig Hotchkiss, education program manager for the museum, said:

“The time to read the original version is when the student can understand it in the context of history. There are strategies for teaching this book, unabridged.”

“There is a difference between an honors literature class in high school and a fifth grade class taking a look at Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn as a book off American nostalgia. The purpose of literature is to get under your skin, to provoke – and that’s what Mark Twain does. It isn’t a feel-good book. It’s a dark book, but it’s worth reading because it’s timeless.

In Gribben’s introduction to the book he writes of his decision:

“The n-word possessed, then as now, demeaning implications more vile than almost any insult that can be applied to other racial groups. As a result, with every passing decade this affront appears to gain rather than lose its impact.”

Who is right? Is editing classic literature like this nothing more than a form of censorship? Or should the norms of modern society be considered in presenting classic literature? What do you think?

For more on Mark Twain click here

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