Censoring Mark Twain: A Literary Embarrassment

Censoring Mark Twain: A Literary Embarrassment

NewSouth Books is publishing an edition of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn that removes every occurrence of the “n-word” and replaces it with the word “slave.” I am outraged by this desecration of a classic American masterpiece – the editor specifies readers’ “discomfort” and possible book banning as reason enough to censor the book, but my question is: Where have all the teachers gone?

Mark Twain wanted us to be uncomfortable, that’s the whole point. He wrote the story to reflect the attitudes and situations of the people – to force Americans to look this problem in the face, reflect on it, and deal with it. My hope is that everyone who cares about honesty in American history and the liberty and protection of writers, will speak up and out against Blair Publishing and this asinine, spineless censorship.

The work is provided with an Introduction by Editor Alan Gribben, who attempts to explain his reasoning behind censoring all 217 occurrences of the word nigger, as well as other racial slurs against Native Americans. The intent, based on Mr. Gribben’s argument, is not to replace the original work, which scholars and the literati will no doubt continue to prefer, but to make the book more accessible to less-learned or more sensitive readers, by excluding one of the English language’s most hateful descriptors.

As my readers know by now, I am a staunch opponent of any type of censorship.  I can certainly understand where Mr. Gribben is coming from – his hope, as a Twain scholar – is to make the book (truly, the defining piece of American literature) more commonly listed amongst school reading lists and more confidently taught in classroom settings.  This is admirable, to be sure, but at what price?  My questions are as follows:  1) Who gives anyone the right to alter the original intent of an author, particularly one as paramount to American literature as Mark Twain; 2) How is it not plain to see that, by removing the word and its overall sentiment, you dilute the meaning and intent of the work; and 3) When does shielding a sensitive public from the truth of a time, place, or particular sentiment, do the people any justice?

Let me take a walk through Mr. Gribben’s introduction (found here), point out areas of disagreement, and explain my own reasons for being so utterly outraged and fearful for the future of American literature, if its masters’ origins –the foundations for all American writers to follow- are in peril.

On page eleven, Gribben points out that “Twain scarcely had to concern himself about the feelings of African American or American Indian readers.”  What Gribben does not mention, though, is the actual reason why Twain was only concerned with white readers, which is this: It was the white reader’s mentality and attitudes which Twain was calling into question.  Twain was not concerned about offending anyone, because he was hoping to rattle the cages, to get people worked up, annoyed and, ultimately, reflective.

On page twelve, Mr. Gribben reminds us that Huck Finn was said to have been a boy of “’sound heart and a deformed conscience’ – in other words, someone reared amid such pervasive prejudice that he had a hard time seeing through its premises.”  I agree with Mr. Gribben on this point, but I would ask – how, then, by denying the reader the opportunity to truly live in Huck’s world, to see first-hand the complete and utter disrespect and debasement with which Huck’s “role-models” treat the minority races, can the reader get this sense of Huck’s internal struggle?   He goes on to say that the “implications of permanent inferiority . . . repulse modern day readers,” at which, I assume, Twain would stand up and cheer!  Thank goodness these words and actions repulse modern readers – they should!  And they should be there, always, as a reminder of a time when we, as a society, were not repulsed, so as not to ever forget and thereby repeat the damaging mistakes of our past.

When we get to page thirteen, Mr. Gribben mentions how he is “unable to utter the racist put-downs spoken by numerous characters” in the book, when giving lectures or public readings, then seems surprised that the audience, too, would feel discomfort.  The audience, like the classroom, will take its cue from the speaker (as Mark Twain well understood).  The solution, then, to this “nagging problem with the text” is not resolved, as Mr. Gribben asserts, by simply removing the words – it is only masked.  The key is not to turn from these feelings, but to embrace and examine them – to explain the text, as it is, and as it was meant to be.  Open up a dialogue, learn from one another.  Will it get uncomfortable?  Probably.  Will some be hurt, others saddened, and still others hardly affected at all?  Absolutely, yes.  But by masking the true nature of the work, and the intent of the author, we do a great disservice to Twain’s bold and near-revolutionary stance on social conscience – and that is the lesson we should be teaching, the point we should be getting across.  Mr. Gribben seems to forget that the language of this novel is not a “problem,” as he concludes, but is in fact the key element of the story, without which it would not stand as the beacon of American literature that it is today.

On page fourteen, Mr. Gribben reasserts a notion he had been signifying throughout the initial portion of the Introduction, which is that Huckleberry Finn has long been considered the “mandatory statement about American slavery.”  I would argue, though, that the book is not about American slavery, it is about the American conscience, and Mark Twain, by making use of genuine dialect, slang, and inflammatory language, was needling at his readers’ consciences from start to finish.

We arrive at page fifteen, wherein Gribben empathizes with teachers who are weary of assigning the beloved classic “because of the hurtful ‘n word.”  Gribben asserts that this is “proof that a single debasing word was overwhelming every other consideration.”  If this is true, then the tragedy is not the presence of the hurtful word in this great American text, but in the lack of courage in our teachers.  Where are our Aristotles? Our Platos?  Who is teaching our teachers how to teach, and why have they become so afraid of facing American history realistically and explaining to our future generations where we came from, who we were, and what we have tried to become?   There is no “here” without a “there” and it was the river-boat journey in-between which carried us ever-onward.

Gribben goes on to state that “the term ‘slave’ is recognized globally as an affront to humanity.”  Yes, as it should be – but Huckleberry Finn can hardly be read “authentically,” as Gribben asserts, if this stated attitude, and Huck’s journey itself, is diluted by the censorship of its most offensive language; the counter-sentiment to Huck’s cry: “All right, then, I’ll go to hell!” when he chooses to stand by Jim despite the “civilized” beliefs of his society (that the Christian thing to do with a runaway slave is return him) must be there in full-force, or we reduce that most momentous of literary moments to something fleeting and inconsequential.

On page seventeen, Gribben makes a valid point about how teachers become misguided in their attempts at teaching this text.  He says that, “some teachers go so far as to write the offensive word in large letters on the board and encourage their students to exchange opinions about it.”  Of course, this approach could be disastrous, if the dialogue is not carefully and sensitively planned and guided, with previous historical insight into the presence of the word in the text, where it comes from, and what Twain was doing with it.  I once had a Biology teacher who would throw out similarly provocative words, related to anatomy rather than literature, in an attempt to “break the ice” and get her students more comfortable with the “naughty words.”  Did it work?  Not really – but that was largely because the teacher did not treat the words as seriously as they should have been, as the teacher with the large letters on the board probably had not done.  But to erase the word completely is equally harmful to our understanding of the work itself, and to the possibility for further progress and growth as a people who are capable of learning from and lamenting the past, without having to be mired in its shames without opportunity (the opportunity being social and personal maturity).

Later in the Introduction, Gribben somewhat paradoxically claims that if the “allusions to an inhumane institution” (slavery) make readers uncomfortable, it is a fortunate thing.  He goes on to ask: “Would we rather have a novel written about the American South of the 1840s that entirely avoided the existence of slavery?”  How does one distinguish, then, which aspects of the American South of the 1840s are worthy of inclusion, or deserving of exclusion?  There are current attempts at re-writing that history, excluding the existence of slavery from classroom textbooks, for instance, which Gribben would seemingly oppose vehemently, based on his assertions above.  But how does he disassociate that question from this one: Would we rather have a novel written about the American South of the 1840s that entirely shies away from the existence of derogatory slurs and very real social sentiments of that time, negating any of the progress we have made to-date?  It seems Gribben makes this argument by focusing again only on slavery as the issue in Huckleberry Finn but it is not just slavery being berated by Twain – it is racism and the human conscience. Twain is begging his audiences to WAKE UP, not to roll over, cover their eyes and ears, and hope that all the bad words go away.

Similarly, Gribben points out the importance of the oft-debated and somewhat offensive “sometimes comically ungrammatical dialect.”  On page twenty-seven, Gribben argues that “Jim speaks with an untutored dialect because it was against the law in most slave states to allow slaves to attend school or otherwise learn to read and write.”  This is an interesting argument, and one with which I agree and have made in my own defense of authentic dialect in this novel.  Yet, if the dialect is so offensive to many, how can Gribben be for leaving it in the text while being for excluding what was then a very real, common, and authentically used term?  These are two sides of the same coin, both equally important, but to argue in favor of one and in opposition to the other is a blatant double-standard, and one which needs serious re-evaluation.  I agree completely with Mr. Gribben’s point that the dialect must be left genuine, and my argument is the same for the use of natural, if highly offensive language.  How do we justify honoring the contentious grammar, but then completely remove the controversial language?  Why cannot we teach the importance of both, in parallel, in the same way?  It seems by removing the heated language from the natural dialogue, we are deflating a balloon – the item retains its vivid color, and is certainly something to be held in one’s hand, but with very little purpose.

Gribben concludes by speaking to the impact Twain’s writing (Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn in particular) had on modern American literature.  He mentions that, by affording us a naïve and rather unreliable (by virtue of being uneducated) narrator in Huck Finn, the reader is then made “to carry out most of the task of constructing its meaning.”  He furthers this by noting that the book “prompts readers to check on whether or not they are succumbing to social pressures in order to avoid admitting that a pervasive practice might be tremendously wrong.”  He relays this information in direct correlation to the reasoning behind many nations’ attempts at banning or censoring the book (fear of revolution) – though he does not see that he now is the one “succumbing to social pressures” (31) by censoring the greatest of all American novels because it is preferable to causing offense and it is easier than explaining true intent by forcing readers to search for deeper meaning.  Gribben mentions that it is “conformist and cowardly of us to assume that prevailing laws and customs, no matter how solidly established, are too sacrosanct to be skeptically examined and tested.”  Fortunately, the pendulum of explicitly racist dialect has swung far from its arc of the 1840s; unfortunately, however, what is now “sacrosanct” is the view that any racist language, regardless of purpose and intent should be barred on the grounds of preserving dignity and righting historical wrongs – this, sadly, misses the obvious: Twain, by being scrupulous and meticulous in his prose  – language, dialect, and narrative voice – was the original champion for the idea of alike humanity and common decency.  Censoring his work, diluting the errors and passions of the characters, and ignoring the truth and reality of the time only furthers the misunderstanding that the work in some way perpetuates racist feelings.   Upon correct reading and careful guidance and instruction, one realizes that this book does just the opposite, and rather than taking the simple road out – away from the sensitive spots – we should, instead, fight for confident, competent, and courageous teachings of these socially and historically significant works.

*As a side-note:  I am particularly bothered by a certain bit of logic that Mr. Gribben attempts to use, in support of his argument.  At one point, he tells an account of how he, at a Mark Twain conference in Pennsylvania, had to cross a line of picketing parents to get into the venue.  The parents were there, reportedly, because one teacher had asked an African American boy to read the part of Jim, the slave. This, not unexpectedly, caused an incident and flamed the protest; yet, one must ask – how exactly does this relate to the book itself?  One teacher’s ineptness at presenting the material, or one group of parents’ potential over-reaction, has nothing to do with the power of the book.  It is duplicitous to infer that these parents were there protesting the book, based on its language or anything else, when they were, in actuality, protesting the apparent discrimination in the classroom, which could have been, through proper use of Twain’s text, a learning experience for all.  The use of this anecdote is a flawed logic and should be dismissed, as the two arguments (one against the events in the classroom; the other against the book) have nothing to do with each other.

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” – Mark Twain


5 thoughts on “Censoring Mark Twain: A Literary Embarrassment

  1. I agree , writers want us to read or say their words I go to book groups run by the reader org l (worth looking up) were we read the whole text together i get annoyed when we are reading a certain text and they dont read the words out because they are embarassing or not politically correct as you state thats may be is how you are supposed to feal !!

  2. Thanks for a thought-provoking post as always. It may sound irrelevant, but this post reminds me of my twitter friend who thinks himself a proud cripple, resented the word “disabled” and insisted that we should use the word cripple. Burroughs once said that “one very important aspect of art is that it makes people aware of what they know and what they don’t know that they know.” So, this thoughtless replacement of “n-word” with the word slave seems an attempt to conceal an obvious fact that racism still exists in this world, that racism belongs not only to the past but the present. Perhaps this may explain one of reasons why my friend was angry with the word disabled…the word like cripple may sound more disturbing, while it can bring our attention to the fact there is still discrimination against minorities…(besides the word “disabled” gives us a wrong impression that they are incapable) There is also the difference between words used in literary texts and in our everyday life, which I must consider more… Well, commenting like this really helps me think about complicated matters. Thank you.

  3. Pingback: {books} bbw readings | omphaloskepsis

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