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Politically-Correct Twain

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It was a well-meaning and sensitive Mark Twain scholar Alan Gribben, working with NewSouth Books, who prepared slightly sanitized versions of Mark Twain’s touchstone novels, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer substituting the word “slave” for the word “nigger” (or, the “N-word” for those so inclined). Supporting his actions, Gribben told the Associated Press, “It’s such a shame that one word should be a barrier between a marvelous reading experience and a lot of readers.” The editing job was not too hard, NewSouth simply changed the 219 instances of the offensive word to something more acceptable.

In a “60 Minutes” interview, Randall Williams, co-owner and editor of NewSouth Books, clarified the position, responding to the presence of the pejorative, “If you can have the discussion and you’re comfortable havin’ the discussion, have it. Have it with it in there. But if you’re not comfortable with that, then here’s an alternative for you to use. And I would argue to you that it’s still powerful.” While that is powerful and compelling reasoning, it nevertheless retains a certain element of historic revision.

Mark Twain was hardly silent on the matter, writing in 1888, “the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter,” later extrapolating the difference as, “the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” It is both impossible and unfair to hold Mark Twain’s masterpieces responsible for an offense, by today’s standards, 125 years after the fact. No service is done in any quarter by editing an established text to make it more “palatable” or “acceptable” to a contemporary audience.

Is “nigger” a bad word? Absolutely. Odious, unacceptable, vile, vain, profane all describe the word and its connotations. I do not permit it said by my family and confront friends and acquaintances when they say it. Its use by both blacks and whites is unnecessary. I see this as a matter of simple respect and courtesy. Today, at the beginning of the second decade of the 21st Century, the word “nigger” has no place in social discourse (as its use is patently antisocial). Having said that, I also believe that altering antique texts to conform to modern qualms is as odious, unacceptable, vile, vain, and profane as the word itself. Such smacks of the famous picture of Josef Stalin and water commissar Nikolai Yerzof. After Yerzof had fallen from Stalin’s favor, he was arrested and shot and all photographs of Yerzof and Stalin were cleansed of Yerzof’s image, leaving both an inaccurate version of history and the sinister message that no one is safe.

NewSouth’s efforts to “improve” the readability of Twain’s books is also a matter of Noah closing the Arc door after, not only the cow, but every other animal, got out. Hip Hop culture and Rap Music exposes orders of magnitude more individuals to the word “nigger” than Twain’s books ever have or will. So, while Alan Gribben’s wrings his hands about the word being a barrier to “a marvelous reading experience,” he inevitably throws the baby out with the bathwater, cheapening American Literature in the bargain.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer are history. A bad history in some elements, but history just the same. Removing one word from a book will not change that, opening the door to even less acceptable historic revision.

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About C. Michael Bailey

I am sanctified and Southern fried, My mama tried and daddy cried; I tell the truth 'cept when I've lied And I like my huevos on the side...
  • http://www.flawsophy.net flawsophy

    It’s a very relevant trend that you touched upon … it is scary that we are responding to a sublime, undercurrent need of denial of the bad episodes of our history …

    They even changed the lyrics of “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits because it contained a word that is objectionable to homosexuals …

    Art, by the way, is the mirror of the society we live in … by changing the art, we can’t redeem ourselves of anything …

  • Roger B

    Frankly, I’m a person who never swears. IMO it shows weakness and it leaves one with no weapon when, in extremis, one must say something intimidating. They are fighting words and one must seriously be ready to fight.

    While I would never use the N word carelessly in my own life, anymore than I would use the F word or the MF word, if I were to read Huck Finn aloud I would have no hesitation to use any word because Huck Finn is the great american novel by the greatest american writer and his craft and art demand respect. Twains writing and language are precise and perfect.

    Incidentally, I greatly admire the trick that black people have used to create this astonishing paradigm for a word. They did a similar thing on a smaller scale with ‘bad’, by inverting it’s meaning entirely. It’s brilliant verbal ju jitsu. I’m in awe of the subtlety and depth of these tricks. It mocks any idea of racial inferiority.

  • http://www.amazon.com/Stereotypes-Black-Music-African-American-Compromise/dp/1453853669/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1291054567&sr=1-1 Alan Kurtz

    Roger B (#2), with respect, I believe you’re oversimplifying the nuanced way in which African Americans use the N-word. It’s not merely a matter of inverting its meaning to, as you put it, “mock any idea of racial inferiority.”

    Consider comedian Chris Rock’s famous stand-up routine “Niggas vs. Black People.” Whatever you might think of the term “Niggas” (I personally deplore it), hopefully you’ll agree for sake of discussion that it is either synonymous with the N-word or a close euphemism.

    Chris Rock uses it to distinguish two types of African Americans. “There’s black people,” he says, “and there’s niggas. And niggas have got to go! Every time black people wanna have a good time, ignorant-ass niggas fuck it up. I love black people, but I hate niggas. I wish they’d let me join the Klu Klux Klan! I’d do a drive-by from here to Brooklyn. I’m tired of niggas, man. You can’t have shit when you around niggas.”

    Before it evolved into “niggas,” the unmodified N-word was used in this same self-critical way by African Americans. In 1970, The Last Poets’ eponymously titled LP placed #13 on Billboard’s chart of Top Soul Albums and, amazingly, #98 among that year’s Top Pop Albums. On average, every tenth word on the track “Niggers Are Scared of Revolution” is the N-word. Cumulatively, over 5¼ minutes, we are treated to the N-word at a rate of nearly one every second.

    According to the writer/performer Umar Bin Hassan, those N-words signify pimps, murderers and their victims, transsexuals and transvestites. These “niggers,” Hassan declares, “are very untogether people.”

    I apologize for invoking the N-word, but I don’t know how else to illustrate my point that African Americans use this word and its variants in ways that are as fiercely pejorative as any epithet spat in anger by a white racist.

    The irony is that future generations may require sanitized editions of Chris Rock, The Last Poets, and hundreds of other rappers with their countless N-words expunged just as we have now with Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. As C. Michael Bailey here rightly points out, it’s equivalent to totalitarians rewriting history.