Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Huck Finn 2.0

There's been a lot of news lately about one individual's plans to publish a version of Mark Twain's classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with strategic edits throughout to the "n-word" so prevalent in its pages.

I grant you that the n-word is offensive in the extreme in modern usage. I also understand the sensitivity around teaching this work anywhere in the K-12 curriculum as a consequence of that offensiveness.

But, surely, the answer is not to simply remove anything offensive from any work of literature! (And certainly not to make a terminology substitution that turns many passages into gobbledygook.)

Herewith, some of my arguments for the position that doing this is a bad idea:
  • Respect for the literary canon and for the integrity of the author. Works get elevated to the level of "classics" for a reason. They exhibit enduring value for their themes, the splendor of their language, or their status as an accurate portrait/reflection of the times in which they were created. To mess with that is to tamper in a very nonconstructive way with the fabric of global history and culture. Spenser's The Faerie Queene arguably loses much if not all of its value if you rewrite it in modern English and publish it under his name as a valid edition of the original. Would we re-write Faulkner for his use of the n-word? Strip Shakespeare of its iambic pentameter because that's "not how people talk nowadays"? Re-imagine Romeo and Juliet, say, as West Side Story or any number of modern-dress stagings, sure. But don't edit out one of the core themes of the story and still call it by its original name.

  • Respect for the student. Learning is supposed to be about preconceptions being challenged, and new viewpoints explored. Bowdlerize these literary texts and you're basically saying to the reader, I want your horizons restricted, your opportunities to confront important issues sidelined. It's a diet of skim milk and saltines for you: nothing meatier need apply.

  • Latitude for the teacher. As a former English teacher myself, I don't know of any of my colleagues who would approach Twain's use of the n-word as anything but a teachable opportunity; a chance to engage his or her students in the dialogue about what the novel's impact at the time of publication would have been on what was, on the whole, an overtly and prevalently racist society. It's the height of irony to me that when Huck was published, the outcry against it was because it dared depict a black man as, wow, human; and that today's outcry is reduced to a derelict piece of terminology.

  • Artistic honesty. An artist's creation deserves to stand as the artist ultimately left it to us. Changes after the fact are, I think, impertinent and an act of high hubris. Are we going to go and re-erect new monoliths at Stonehenge just because we think we've worked out how it "must" have looked, and some stones have fallen down over the centuries? Paint ancient Greek statues in the colors they were originally adorned with, even though they've come down to us as pristine marble? Give the Sphinx back its nose? Don't second-guess the artist and the verdict of time. Let it stand.

  • Finally...where does it stop? If you re-write Huck - and even though it may seem on the surface an innocuous edit, it truly does amount to a re-write - then where does the march of literary correctness end? Do we eliminate all references in The Merchant of Venice to Shylock's Judaism? The notion of revolution offends some people, so maybe we should excise the guillotine from A Tale of Two Cities, or change the plot of Les Miserables? And don't get me started on what we might do with Lolita, or Fahrenheit 451, or The Handmaid's Tale.
I guess it goes back to one of my core principles, which is that our allowing one another the mutual courtesy of free speech and free expression of our beliefs does not give you - or me - the inherent right never to be confronted with something that might offend. The wonderful, beautiful peril of freedom of speech is that, around every corner, something someone might say will challenge me, make me think, piss me off, or push me out of my comfort zone. Reducing that to the mere forms of political correctness seems to me a sad diminution of the human condition.

I hope that the widespread derision this guy's plan is meeting with comes to cancellation. Because I truly think that publication of this sanitized version of Huck would open the floodgates for a whole host of literary works long in the public domain being excised of all their thematic value, reduced to tidy, "safe" objects of study, for no doubt any number of Texas school districts whose graduates believe that humans once rode dinosaurs. Thinking students, teachers, parents, and societies deserve far better than that. And publishers should be mindful of the responsibility they have to the latter audience, rather than to the profit margin dangled by the former.

Please share your comments. I'm interested to hear what everyone thinks about this issue, which I see through a lens that admittedly views the text as primary and untouchable.

1 comment:

Count Istvan said...

All very valid arguments but for me The where does it stop argument is the one the most valid IMHO. Bad idea to start editing these books.

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