For those of you expecting my promised reviews- they will follow. But first a word about a literary classic…
I had an interesting article brought to my attention today. The article. Upcoming NewSouth ‘Huck Finn’ Eliminates the ‘N’ Word appeared in Publisher’s Weekly (
) and detailed the news of an upcoming release of an edited volume of Mark Twain’s classic novels- Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
This new edition is the inspiration of Twain scholar and Auburn University professor, Allan Gribben and was the result of Gribben’s desire to make the works of Twain more accessible and teachable in the school system by removing the offensive racial epithet that recurs repeatedly in both of the above mentioned novels and replacing it with the word ” slave”.
While I applaud Gribben’s desire to make these Twain classics more acceptable and therefore more accessible to schoolchildren, I wonder at the danger inherent in diluting such an important literary work.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has the dubious distinction of being one of the top five most banned books in schools. I remember reading both Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn in elementary school as a child. Of course, since I am a native Virginian and over fifty, that’s not exactly a shocking disclosure. What may surprise some of you however, was that reading Twain’s tales of boyhood adventure on the Mississippi was one of the things that started to open my eyes to the awful inequities and cruelty that are part of life- not always in the big things, but in the small and cruel cuts that are sometimes overlooked.
As a child, living when and where I did, it is not exactly surprising that I heard that word far more often than children do these days- and in a far more cruel and derogatory context. I heard it from the lips of people I knew and those I did not. But the first time I read it was when I read Twain’s stories as a young girl. Ironically- especially to those who would like to ban Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn for this very purpose- it was one of the first times I realized the power of words. When I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, told as it is in Huck’s voice, I realized that despite the manner of his speech, Huck was not quite as backward as he sounded. As I read, I noticed that Huck saw a lot of the insincerity and hypocrisy in the world around him. He also noticed the unfairness in the world. Not so much at first ( except when it comes to his own life), but later, as his adventures with Jim progress, and he sees Jim in a light untainted by the society of his time.
For those of you wondering at the point of my argument, it is this : that word that Huck used so casually in regards to Jim, or any other person of his color was a signal of a widely held attitude in those times. That Huck, in all his boyish simplicity, could question the attitudes of the time is a testament to the ability of all humans to overcome their own ignorance and accept what is right and true. Could Twain have achieved that point without the use of that word? Perhaps, but I doubt it. The word itself suggest an attitude and a way of seeing another human being, that- like it or not- was held by a vast portion of people at that time. To remove its existence denies that those beliefs and attitudes were ever held, thus rendering those that that perpetrated that system to appear somewhat less guilty than they were.
In conclusion, I offer a comparison I have offered before. While some may not understand the linkage, if you think about it you may understand.
I remember my first visit to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. I remember walking through the exhibits chronicling the atrocities perpetrated on millions of human beings by other human beings. I remember thinking about all those people who, while they may not have committed any of the atrocities, were at least complicit by their silence. I also remember thinking that if Hitler and his ilk had been successful with their master plan that there would likely be no evidence of the methods they used – of the ugliness and evil that human beings can visit on one another. It was then that I fully understood why the various Holocaust Museums exist. To remind us. To show us in totally unvarnished terms what we are capable of- if we allow it. Human beings, quite understandably, are uncomfortable with the uglier side of our history. Just as the Germans would likely like to pretend that Hitler never existed, the United States would surely like to pretend we never fostered and upheld the institution of slavery, or the dehumanization of Native Americans or any of a number of shameful events we, as Americans, have been part of. Shameful or not, it is part of our past. It is best to remember it vividly in order to prevent repeating it.
One last note- for those who say that the unrevised version of Huck Finn is too harsh or socially unpalatable for todays schoolchildren- I remind you that Huck was a child- fictitous or not- that pushed away from the accepted ways of those around him to see the truth and to change his views and fight for right in the end. He did this because he looked past the facade of polite society to the ugliness beneath. All in all, not a bad example.