One of the literary controversies that’s always left me the most befuddled is the reaction to Mark Twain’s portrayal of racism in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Critics of Twain’s portrayal of racist characters as… well, racist, have for a long time been trying to either censor or water down some of the language used. And now it looks like they have to some extent succeeded. From Reuters:
Twain scholar Alan Gribben said he decided to reissue the 19th century classic “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” replacing the slur with the word “slaves” in all 219 places it occurs in the text because the original offended many readers.
Here’s the thing though: If you read that book and your conclusion is that Twain is saying that Huck and his dad are awesome for saying “nigger” all the time and that Huck and Tom should be admired for keeping Jim in bondage when it’s no longer necessary to do so as if it’s part of some really cool game – and by extension that Twain is saying that slavery and Jim Crow laws are wonderful – then you’re not just wrong, you’re borderline illiterate. Someone who comes to that conclusion might be able to mechanically read actual words on a page (probably moving their lips in the process), but totally fails when it comes to deriving a larger comprehension of the words they’re reading. And if you’re worried about the children who might not pick up on the completely obvious moral of the story, then that is the problem of the parents and teachers of said children and not of the rest of us who know how to read.
So either this Gribben person is missing the whole point of this book or he’s catering to those who do, as if they somehow matter. I would lean towards the latter, but either way, the term “Twain scholar” should not be applied to him. And in censoring the book in this way, Gribben’s actually whitewashing late 19th century racism. Replacing “nigger” with “slave” ostensibly makes the racism of the characters Twain is portraying and attacking less offensive (although Roger Ebert disagrees on that point). But what interest should we have in making those who believe in inherent racial inequality more likeable? Why is that a priority for literary critics, or anyone, for that matter?
This is really the most insidious way of attacking good satire that those who would censor it have. They draw on the good instincts we all have against stupidity and racism and then use it against the target of the work in question. But what other choice does an author have? How can you attack racism without actually portraying it in a character?
That’s where all of this starts to get ugly. You have to wonder what it is exactly these “many readers” are offended by. If it’s just the actual word “nigger” devoid of any context at all, then they’re borderline-illiterate morons who have no business dictating how books should be published. But it also could be that they do understand the larger context and just don’t like Twain’s message. It’s not exactly subtle, after all. That’s just not how the guy rolled. They want a friendlier, happier, most nostalgic view of Reconstruction in the south and this book is depriving them of that fantasy. So they’ll try to water it down and censor it even if they have to bend over backwards betraying their true feelings to do so.
Fortunately we’re not all dumbed down enough to let this slide. The Librarian of the Year is speaking out against it (In other news, there is such a thing as a Librarian of the Year), along with other actual scholars who aren’t as stupid and/or sensationalist as this horrible Alan Gribben person.