Never the Twain shall meet

I keep wanting to say something — just something — about that forthcoming new edition of Huckleberry Finn that you may have heard about recently, the one that replaces Mark Twain’s some two hundred uses of the word “nigger” — and let’s just get that right out there at the start — with the word “slave.” But beyond saying, well, I don’t think they should do that, I don’t have a whole lot to say about it. Frankly, lots of other people have already said it better than me.

For instance, Petter David writes:

To me, the bottomline [sic] is this: I have little doubt that fifty years from now the NewSouth edition will be forgotten, seen as a quaint relic of attempted censorship in the same manner that the Bowdler versions of Shakespeare plays are. In the meantime, Huck Finn’s realization that a man should be judged–if he is to be judged at all–by the quality of his soul rather than the color of his skin–will continue to shine as a clarion call for racial tolerance in a way that all the censored versions of classic works will not.

I heard an interview with the new edition’s editor, Alan Gribben, on a recent episode of Studio 360, and his intentions seem to be good, his heart in the right place. Many students, and not just African Americans, he argues, have a very difficult time engaging with the novel because of that word; it’s simply too loaded a word for them to read past it. In his introduction, he writes:

Through a succession of firsthand experiences, this editor gradually concluded that an epithet-free edition of Twain’s books is necessary today. For nearly forty years I have led college classes, bookstore forums, and library reading groups in detailed discussions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in California, Texas, New York, and Alabama, and I always recoiled from uttering the racial slurs spoken by numerous characters, including Tom and Huck. I invariably substituted the word “slave” for Twain’s ubiquitous n-word whenever I read any passages aloud. Students and audience members seemed to prefer this expedient, and I could detect a visible sense of relief each time, as though a nagging problem with the text had been addressed. Indeed, numerous communities currently ban Huckleberry Finn as required reading in public schools owing to its offensive racial language and have quietly moved the title to voluntary reading lists. The American Library Association lists the novel as one of the most frequently challenged books across the nation.

And yet, while his intention is not censorship, it is at the very least sugarcoating, and one of a distinctly odd variety: his substitution may not have the hateful power of Twain’s original, the same slap-in-the-face quality that the n-word has since acquired, but it is, in the end, arguably more offensive.

That’s debatable, of course, and obviously my reaction to either word isn’t going to be the same as a young African American high school or college student’s. It may indeed be incredibly difficult for such a student to work past the n-word, to see past the centuries of racism and hate that have often divided us and made teaching the book so contentious. But isn’t that, to a very large extent, what teaching is for?

Matt Cheney writes about this in great detail, and his post, along with the links he shares, are worth reading in full. In part, he says:

I think teachers have a responsibility to raise and work through difficult, discomforting topics with students, because those topics are not going to disappear if they’re not talked about. Students will encounter racism and sexism and homophobia and all sorts of other privileges, entitlements, and entanglements — they will even, in all likelihood, perpetrate some of those things themselves (I have; haven’t we all?). Education shouldn’t be about memorizing lots of facts and figures, or about reading pleasant and uncontroversial books. There’s a place, certainly, for facts, figures, and pleasant reading. But educators need to have some spark of idealism. We should want to make the world better, and to help empower our students in whatever small ways we can to go forth and help make the world a more beautiful, less painful place. Otherwise, why bother teaching?

Perhaps replacing the word “nigger” with “slave” throughout Huck Finn makes the book better; it certainly doesn’t make the world better.

So, in the end, yeah, I don’t have a lot to say myself beyond, well, I wish they wouldn’t do that. But they’re going to do it, and no doubt the altered edition will be taught in a number of schools going forward. I just think, for however easier it will make the teaching and reading experience, those students and their instructors are getting cheated.