8 January 2011

Took me a few months to realize the focus of this blog, what would bring me back time and again, which I haven’t given much conscious thought to, but as I look back at many of my entries, I think I know. I knew from the start that I didn’t want to bore anyone, including myself, by writing about my daily life. And I knew the general theme would be about writing and books and publishing. But there’s only so much one can say about these things in the general sense. But I made a simple realization this week. Since I read so much, I can simply respond to the things I’m reading. Problem now is that I have too much to write about.

Let’s begin, shall we. I’m a third of the way through Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, the fascinating story about the great migration of blacks from the South to the northern cities of the United States during the 1900s. As she documents the brutality and degradation blacks had to endure, you wonder why any blacks stayed behind in Louisiana and Mississippi and Florida and elsewhere. She mentions early on that she will use colored or black or African-American, respectively, as she describes the period in which these identifiers were commonly used. It’s interesting to note that she omits mention of the other identifier that comes to mind, and I think I understand why. She’s referring to public discourse used during each time period, not necessarily the language used by people “privately.”

This week, some publisher announced plans to introduce a new version of Huck Finn, which would substitute “slave” for every instance of the n-word. And there are 219 instances. The fact that I feel compelled to avoid the actual identifier makes me pause and smooth down the hackles raised at the back of my neck when I hear of someone messing with the contents of any book. If I feel this compulsion to avoid the word, maybe there’s a need for the change. Maybe the butchering is not as monumental as it seems. Maybe some good will come of it. I’m not saying I believe any of this. I just want to step back and at least peek at the rationale for the edit.

It is admittedly an ugly word. When I taught the book and read passages aloud to classes, I didn’t skip over the word, but sometimes I avoided the passages in question entirely, depending on the maturity of the class. But we didn’t ignore the word; students still had to read the book on their own, and we did have lively discussions on the power of language.

If the word were softened by “slave,” maybe more people would read the book. That’s one of the claims at least. Twain used to say that a classic is defined as a book that is praised but not read, so I do wonder what he might say. Huck Finn, though, is read. In schools at least. I’m doubtful that this edit would garner more non-school readers. If people are avoiding the book because of a single word, I’m doubly doubtful they would understand the point of the book anyway.

It is true that some teachers are not allowed to teach the book because of the language. If this edit changes that, I suppose that might be beneficial. I can imagine an especially lively discussion that first year after the approval of the book: “We can finally read this book, boys and girls. Let’s examine why we never could...” Whether the n-word is in there or not, teachers will have some of the best discussions on language they’ve every had. Which is ironic because this is the very thing objectors don’t want. And students are mentally going to insert the intended word each time! Don’t you love irony?

My biggest objection to editing any book is violating the artistic integrity of the work. In the pre-Civil War South, the primary setting of the book, this is the way people spoke. Young Huck would have spoken this way. He would not have understood the hurt caused by his use of what to him was everyday language. Ah, but as the story progresses, he does come to understand. His words and actions do hurt his black friend, Jim, and his personal insights against a backdrop of brutality become quite moving. What bothers me is that Twain himself violates the integrity of his own work. It took him many years to write the novel, and I suspect he forgot or didn’t know what he’d accomplished. The final third becomes one long, slapstick adventure in which Huck reverts back to his prejudiced ways, as if he hasn’t learned a thing. I suppose the intended message could be a cynical one, that bigotry and cruelty will never be wiped out, but to use the character Huck to convey this cynicism seems unrealistic and inauthentic and negates the power of the previous chapters.

If I could edit Huck Finn—and I hope I’ve made clear I have no interest in such business—but if I could convince Twain to edit this great book full of poignant, moving passages on love and friendship and the beauty of nature—I’d tell him to excise the interminable passages on the Duke and Dauphin. Then I’d ask him if his cynicism at the end is intentional. And if cynicism is the taste he wants to leave us with, I’d plead with him to leave poor Huck alone. Achieve cynicism through another character. Or better yet, allow Huck the insight, let him be cynical, not the oblivious fool he becomes in the end. As a cynic, Huck can continue to defy civilization, and we can join him on his journey and laugh with him at the people who continue to miss the point of the book. 


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