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Home / Articles / Opinion / Editorial /  Twain Wreck
Editorial

Twain Wreck

Altering Huckleberry Finn is an assault on art and words.

By John Rasmuson
Posted // January 12,2011 - Because I like to fiddle around with words, I look forward to the annual word-of-the-year announcements. In case you missed them, “austerity” was Merriam-Webster’s choice for 2010. The American Dialect Society chose “app.” I have to admit I was a little disappointed. Neither has the pizzazz of such coinages as “metrosexual,” the 2003 winner, or Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness,” which took the honors in 2005. Sarah Palin’s “refudiate” didn’t make even the runners-up list this year, but “bigot” did, propelled by controversy over the Koran-burning minister in Florida and the firings of Rick Sanchez by CNN and Juan Williams by NPR.

The sad fact is that the intolerance, prejudice and small-mindedness of the bigot exist in the shadows of the public square. Bigots are drawn into the open, like rats to garbage, by such issues as gay rights, gun control and immigration reform. The immigration debate often devolves into racism, and I think it is fair to say most people use “bigotry” and “racism” interchangeably these days.

“Nigger,” the most odious of all racist words in the language, was yet again the subject of controversy two weeks ago following the announcement that a sanitized version of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn will be published. A story on the front page of The New York Times described a revisionist text in which “slave” would replace all 219 instances of “nigger” in order to make Mark Twain’s 1885 novel acceptable to contemporary grade-school readers. The ensuing controversy spilled over to the op-ed page, where Michiko Kakutani lamented “the narcissistic contemporary belief that art should be inoffensive and accessible; that books, plays and poetry from other times and places should somehow be made to conform to today’s democratic ideals.”

A similar sentiment cropped up in a late-December story in The Salt Lake Tribune. Written by Peggy Fletcher Stack, one of the Tribune’s best reporters, the article described recent word changes in The Book of Mormon. “The LDS Church has made subtle—but significant—changes to chapter headings in its online version of the faith’s signature scripture, The Book of Mormon, toning down some earlier racial allusions,” she wrote. The changes affect characterizations of the Lamanites as being cursed with black skin. Stack quotes Grant Hardy, an LDS historian, as saying, “There is a temptation to read ancient texts in terms of modern suppositions. Probably everybody in history was racist in terms of modern America.” I think Hardy is right. Trust in truthiness—racism is still with us in the 21st century. It is America’s enduring ugly side. I don’t think Mormons are any more racist than the rest of us.

I have read both books. Although neither’s language offended me, I am less concerned about tweaks to The Book of Mormon than I am to the bowdlerization of Huckleberry Finn. I have no doubt that critics of the LDS Church will seize on these minor changes as evidence of a scheme to erase racism from what Twain called “the Mormon Bible.” Three years ago, a brouhaha erupted when critics discovered a one-word change in the book’s introduction. The revision took the Lamanities from being “the principal ancestors of the American Indians” to being “among the ancestors ...” The change brings the church in line with the DNA testing showing American Indians are more related to Siberia than to Israel, the ancestral home of the Lamanites. I don’t have a dog in the fight.

However, I think it is a grave mistake to alter Twain’s prose. It is almost as bad as CleanFlicks’ “movies you can trust” (to have graphic violence, sex and nudity excised by an editing machine). Call it what you may—political correctness, Newspeak or prudishness—I object to tampering with a work of art. Changing Twain’s words is the equivalent of strapping a loincloth on Michelangelo’s David to hide the genitalia.
Don’t overlook the several layers of irony here. Twain intended the book to be an indictment of racism. Jim, the runaway slave, is the most respectable character. The book’s seminal influence on American literature is best described by Ernest Hemingway: He called Huckleberry Finn “the basis of all modern American literature,” and wrote, “There has been nothing as good since.” Hemingway’s praise is based in part on Twain’s painstaking effort to replicate several Mississippi dialects, all of which surely had “nigger” in their vernacular. Twain was a careful craftsman. He was fussy about words. He wrote that “the difference between the almost-right word and the right word is like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Who, then, is qualified to change his words? It’s too bad Twain isn’t around to join the fray. His op-ed piece would be electric with bolts of lightning. Like me, he would be indifferent to changes in The Book of Mormon which he called “chloroform in print” after a visit to Salt Lake City in 1861.

I wonder how many words have come and gone since then. Hundreds? Thousands? The Oxford Junior Dictionary lists 10,000 current ones. To make room for such new words as tweet, blog and app, something has to give way. In 2007, magpie, acorn, beaver and dandelion were dropped, as were other terms relating to nature. (I’ll bet there is no entry for “lightning bug.”) Officials at Oxford University Press defended the changes. “When you look back at older versions of dictionaries, there were lots of examples of flowers for instance,” one said. “That was because many children lived in semi-rural environments and saw the seasons. Nowadays, the environment has changed.” So much so that the dictionary removed the edible blackberry and added the electronic BlackBerry.?

 
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REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // January 12,2011 at 09:32

John,

You've covered this very well. Thanks for that. I've been waiting for somebody at the Weekly to tackle this issue, or at least rehash it, and am very glad that you chose to do so.

I’d also like to thank you for actually spelling “nigger” out rather than calling it the “N” word, as so many other spineless writers have done recently.

The sad thing is that this sterile version of Huck Finn will not only suit but reflect many, many minds in America today in that it will be devoid of substance. This is simply more of the PC bullshit that is so pervasive in America today. This is the continued process of castrating words with meaning by replacing them with weak, shallow, safe euphemisms. Not only do they intend to remove the word “nigger” from the book, they intend to remove the word “Injun Joe”. Injun Joe was a real man living in Hannibal that went by that name.

Huck Finn is too challenging for too many American adults today, let alone their children - they don't get it and don't want to get it. They assume it’s only a kid’s story, something akin to Horatio Alger’s adventures for boys. They don't see that the word “nigger” is there not to ridicule, not to degrade, but to expose, to illustrate. They don't understand that this book brilliantly mirrors the vernacular and attitudes of those times.

The book is subtle, multi-layered, and needs to be read with care, with respect. Too many people are incapable of this act today. If the text doesn’t come in tweets on their cell phones or packaged in an oversimplified graphic novel with pretty pictures, they won’t read it. We, as a society, continue to "clean-flick" art so that it might fit within the confines of our American Christian Mores. We continue, as a society, to remove and sterilize spiritual, mental and emotional challenges that would serve to enrich our minds, spirits and lives were we to take them on instead of destroy them.

I've mentioned before in these electronic pages that, as far as I am concerned, Mark Twain is God. He’s a wonderful teacher, the best I’ve ever had. I've learned much from him and continue to do so; about life, people, fairness, and equality and honest morals, not just the shallow, malleable Christian variety. His autobiography has been thrilling for me to read. I consider this censorship to be blasphemous, stupid, and completely ridiculous and when I look upon our society as a whole I can’t help but think that maybe those Americans that choose to read this safe version, those that push this shallow, plastic imposter on their kids, deserve it. If they bother reading it at all, it'll only amount to a little more artificial sweetener dispersed in the pre-packaged, goopy oatmeal that passes for their intellect. Those of us that want to actually learn something still have the option to do so, thank goodness.

 

Posted // January 13,2011 at 10:13 - Yup, Mom's parents came through Ellis Island from Greece 100 years ago. But, Jesus! My Dad's side just became the real melting pot. Of course, my teen-aged boys think this is hilarious because in Utah, kids want to be black, but not really and ot for long. My kids' stock and trade with their pals just went through the roof in Draper! It's mostly funny, but very real. My grandfather was black, but had Anglo features. We always thought is was his southwest Indian genetics, but now there appears to have been a Buffalo Soldier in the woodpile.

 

Posted // January 12,2011 at 14:56 - Ha! Jesus, Mamba. That's a great picture you've painted. But I thought you were Greek? Must be your mother's side? I wish my paternal grandfather had been a buffalo soldier - good stories, interesting history. Of course, though he's my grandpa by adoption, he was half Cherokee. I don't share his blood but sure as hell wish I did. He was a big, handsome, strapping fellow with beautiful cheekbones, olive skin, and a look in his eye that could turn your blood to ice when necessary. That giant man scared the shit out of me. I did grow up wishing I was black, though. For years I often lamented to my mom, to her amusement, that it wasn't fair that I had to spend my life confined to the pasty, uninteresting skin my guts are contained in when so many other good colors were available at the manufacturing plant. I wanted a touch of the exotic, a velvety chocolate casing that I could adorn with all manner of flamboyant clothing and jewels. I suppose I've come to accept my lot by now. Looking at Wimmer, I'd say you've got him nailed. I'll never look at him the same again.

 

Posted // January 12,2011 at 13:59 - Well, if I told you that I just found out that my paternal grandfather was probably the off-spring of an Indian woman in New Mexico, which I knew, AND a Negro Buffalo Soldier sent out to fight Indians from Illinois, which I didn't know, you'll understand why I'm okay with "negro." At least, for now. And it sure explains a lot of my quirks over the years, over-the-top natural rythym, dressing like a pimp in the 70's, endowments, natural athletic ability, inexplicable atttraction to the blues, a love of white and Asian women and a general fear of Republicans. Especially Carl Wimmer. (Doesn't he just remind you of a South African farmer who just despises black people?)

 

Posted // January 12,2011 at 11:20 - I see your point, Mamba. I do. But I think that Huck Finn is another record of Black history, an important one. It belongs to blacks as much if not more than it does whites. It was written for blacks, in defense of blacks. It proved the white race to be low and vulgar and arrogant in their treatment of blacks while showing, through Nigger Jim, that blacks were so often the superior human being in many ways while facing blatant racism, slavery and senseless inequality. I think that the fact that the word "nigger" has become so caustic in these times makes it all the more important to allow it to remain as was intended in Huck Finn. A word's pungency waxes and wanes over time. We don't use the word "negro" anymore because it is considered offensive and yet, the word "negro", only a short time ago, simply described members of the black race and was used by blacks. Hell, we aren't supposed to say "black" anymore, but African American. I reject that and think it's silly.

 

Posted // January 12,2011 at 10:36 - I agree with your sentiments, but I'm ok with getting these kinds of works into as many hands as possible. It's a kick-in-the-nuts to black readers. I don't think the lessons and adventure of Huck Finn will be lost on new readers if we excise a word that has become a raging insult over 100 years' time. It's probably still "too soon." Black people couldn't sit at lunch counters or use drinking fountains or restrooms with whites as recently as the same time period The Beatles invaded America. When that word comes from the mouths of whites, it has a whole different meaning than when spoken by black people.

 

REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // January 12,2011 at 08:45

I am saddened by the perceived need to alter Twain's word choices. But I heard a man on NPR discussing the change this week; he is white but has black children in his family. He said that the book's language was hurtful to them, and as a result he was in agreement with their school administration's decision to exclude the book from their curriculum. He was happy to see the change; now the children can be exposed to that great example of American Literature without feeling anger/hurt/resentment etc. So, I realized that there are at least 2 sides to this debate.

 

 
 
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