Twain’s masterpiece deserves to be left alone
Published: Wednesday, January 19, 2011 at 9:48 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 19, 2011 at 9:48 p.m.
A Montgomery, Ala., college professor has a simple idea that he believes will make his beloved Mark Twain more popular. Simple, but wrong.
Working with a publisher to bring out a new edition of the well-known classics, Twain scholar Alan Gribben has expunged a handful of offensive words so that more students — or so he believes — will read about Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. He has edited out "Injun," "half-breed" and, of course, the inflammatory epithet "nigger."
Gribben's tamer Twain may well become popular. Every year, schools field complaints from parents who don't want their kids reading Twain's best-known novels because his characters use the N-word. (Never mind that many of those students embrace a popular culture steeped in epithet-spewing gangsta rap.)
Still, with all due respect to Gribben's intentions, his Bowdlerized Huck Finn would hardly be worth reading. Twain is widely considered an American master and "Huckleberry Finn" his masterwork. You don't change his words any more than you chisel a loincloth over Michelangelo's "David."
"Of course it's an offensive word," famed novelist Harper Lee noted over the phone. "But ‘Huckleberry Finn' is one of the great classics of the English language." Lee's enduring novel — "To Kill a Mockingbird" — has suffered similar criticisms for its crimes against modern-day sensibilities.
"Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," set along the Mississippi River in the 1840s, is an exploration of the morality of slavery, cleverly disguised as an adventure novel. The characters, like the human beings they reflect, grow emotionally and spiritually as they are forced to wrestle with moral quandaries. Huck is not defined by his use of a pejorative.
His frequent use of the word, however, is quite in keeping with his time and place. Huck is a bright but semi-literate boy who surely would have used the epithet without any sense of shame, as his contemporaries did.
Twain "used this word for a purpose, and why is it being changed?" asked Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy, author of "Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word." "It's being changed because people are uncomfortable."
"Slavery is a very painful subject," he continued in a telephone interview. "I think it's a bad thing for students to grapple with the history of American slavery and discrimination and lynchings after they've been given a dose of Novocain. Those subjects (should) cause some embarrassment, some discomfort, even some tears. It's tough stuff."
One of the odder things about that "troublesome" word is how quickly it can become the focus of debate, drowning out all consideration of context. Though the nation has difficulty discussing racism, we've arrived at an ad hoc understanding that any white person who uses the N-word has rendered himself part of an extremist fringe.
Yet, American history is full of Huck Finns, moved to acts of simple kindness and decency in opposition to the racial norms of their day — despite their fondness for a crude epithet. In contrast, as Kennedy notes in "Strange Career," history is also full of gentlemanly racists who would never have uttered the term.
"Partly to distance themselves from (lower-class whites), some whites of higher standing have aggressively forsworn the use of ‘nigger.' Such was the case with senators Strom Thurmond and Richard Russell, both white supremacists who never used the N- word," Kennedy wrote.
At the very foundation of any decent education is the push to teach students to think. It may not be easy, but any responsible classroom teacher will surely try. And part of that experience will be exposing students to ideas that are challenging, uncomfortable, outside the norm. It's hard to imagine they can grasp history — or literature — otherwise.
Gribben's errant red pen cannot damage Twain. His genius will live on in countless copies of the original text. But the students exposed to Gribben's lesser Twain will be cheated of the discomfort that is among art's greatest virtues.
Cynthia Tucker writes for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow her blog at http://blogs.ajc.com/cynthia-tucker.