Words and their consequences have been very much in the spotlight lately, generating as much buzz — at least in some circles — as the electronic gadgetry we can buy to convey them. Not least, Alan Gribben, an English professor at Auburn, has gotten a lot of publicity for bowdlerizing Huckeleberry Finn so that schools will keep — or put — it on their reading lists.
School districts don't want to offend anyone. Mark Twain has Huck refer to his companion Jim with “the N word,” aka “nigger.” This offends or may offend some potential readers. So some school districts leave Huckleberry Finn — arguably the most important book in American literature — off their reading lists. If you want American schools to assign and American kids to read that particular classic, why not remove the offending words?
Why not, indeed? One thinks of the American major in Vietnam who allegedly said: "It became necessary to destroy the town (in order) to save it.” If nobody will read a great book unexpurgated, do you expurgate it so that people will read a lesser version? Why not just give the kids a condensed version? How about Shakespeare in modern slang? Where does it end?
Predictably, most writers who have commented publicly on the new, sanitized Huckleberry Finn seem to think it's a terrible idea. They point out, among other things, that it's considered OK for some people to use the word, but not for others. Rappers use “the N word” all the time. This is hardly news. "Mr. Gribben has said he worried that the N-word had resulted in the novel falling off reading lists,” Michiko Kakutani explains in The New York Times, “and that he thought his edition would be welcomed by schoolteachers and university instructors who wanted to spare 'the reader from a racial slur that never seems to lose its vitriol.' Never mind that today 'nigger' is used by many rappers, who have reclaimed the word from its ugly past.” (Whatever you think of the rappers, it is certainly ironic that while many schools make their reading lists blandly inoffensive, the general media environment that students encounter out of school has become more offensive than ever.)
Whether or not the rappers have actually “reclaimed” the word will get you an argument. “How hardy is the weed of self-loathing,” the (African American) columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr., asks, “that many black people rationalize and justify its use, even now? . . ."
"I mean,” Pitts wonders, “has the black girl Gribben mentions (who was so offended by the language that she 'loathed' Huckleberry Finn) never heard of Chris Rock or Snoop Dogg?”
The whole point of the book is that Huck realizes Jim isn't any less of a person than the white people who regard him as property. Twain treats the character of Jim with respect, and Huck winds up respecting him, too. “Instead of doing a gotcha search on Twain’s 'Huckleberry Finn,' I recommend that its critics read it,” Ishmael Reed has written. “They will find that Twain’s Jim has more depth than the parade of black male characters that one finds in recent movies, theater and literature, who are little more than lethal props. Jim is self sufficient, capable of fending for himself amidst dire circumstances, cares about his family, is religious and has goals. He is one of the few characters in the book with any kind of integrity.”
Pitts writes that “Huckleberry Finn is a funny, subversive story about a runaway white boy who comes to locate the humanity in a runaway black man and, in the process, vindicates his own. It has always, until now, been regarded as a timeless tale. But that was before America became an intellectual backwater."
Some think it's pretty presumptuous of an obscure academic to rewrite, even marginally, a book that is generally considered a masterpiece of American literature. Reed suggests the “fact that a critic has taken to tampering with Twain’s great work is another sign that the atavistic philistinism that has taken hold of our politics and culture has found a place in academia.”
Kakutani describes “the narcissistic contemporary belief that art should be inoffensive and accessible; that books, plays, and poetry from other times and places should somehow be made to conform to today’s democratic ideals. It’s like the politically correct efforts in the ’80s to exile great authors like Conrad and Melville from the canon because their work does not feature enough women or projects colonialist attitudes.”
She doesn't hold much with that approach. Instead, “(a)uthors’ original texts should be sacrosanct intellectual property, whether a book is a classic or not. Tampering with a writer’s words underscores both editors’ extraordinary hubris and a cavalier attitude embraced by more and more people in this day of mash-ups, sampling and digital books — the attitude that all texts are fungible, that readers are entitled to alter as they please, that the very idea of authorship is old-fashioned.”
The N word accurately reflects the way people talked at the time. Pitts suggests, “it is never a good idea to sugarcoat the past. The past is what it is, immutable and nonnegotiable. Even a cursory glance at the historical record will show that Twain’s use of the reprehensible word was an accurate reflection of that era. So it would be more useful to have any new edition offer students context and challenge them to ask hard questions: Why did Twain choose that word? What kind of country must this have been that it was so ubiquitous?”
The U.S. House of Representatives has been careful to avoid that kind of embarassing historical question. The House began its current session by reading the Constitution aloud — not a bad idea, although one wonders about paying 435 people rather handsomely to spend a day doing it. But the House arguably did a little sugarcoating of its own. Critics have noted that the reading omitted those parts of the original document that even Tea Party Congressmen recognize are no longer politically acceptable — chiefly those that recognized and accomodated slavery. (For purposes of representation, a slave — who couldn't vote — would be counted as three-fifths of a person. The importation of slaves would have to end — in 20 years.)
Of course, those clauses are no longer part of the Constitution, and one can make a good case for reading the document as it is, not as it was.
One can also argue that if the House leadership realizes the Constitution has changed for the better, it should acknowledge that the document evolves over time, and that therefore, conservatives shouldn't simply evoke the Founders' view of the world as an immutable holy vision.
The New York Times editorialized: "Members of the House might have thought they were bringing the Constitution alive by reading it aloud. . . . But they made a crucial error by excising its history. When they chose to deliberately drop the sections that became obsolete or offensive, and which were later amended, they missed a chance to demonstrate that this document is not nailed to the door of the past. It remains vital precisely because it can be reimagined.”
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