Twain Wreck 

Altering Huckleberry Finn is an assault on art and words.

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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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