Ripping the literary world in “Twain”

If you’re in the literary loop, you’re probably aware that publisher NewSouth Books is releasing an “updated” (their word) version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn this February. The new version replaces 219 instances of the “N-word” with the word “slave” and replaces the slang “Injun” with “Indian” when referring to the antagonist, Injun Joe. Many educators and literary critics are crying foul, and that’s understandable. But what’s really the issue here?

In terms of vocabulary, few authors were as passionate about choosing the right word as Mark Twain was. In his pointed criticism of the “updated” book, Rich Lowry discusses the painstaking and experimental process that Twain went through in his writing, working through five or six different spellings of the same word in order to capture the way a character, in a specific accent, would actually pronounce it. Twain was crazy about words and choosing the right one for the right situation:

The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. – Letter to George Bainton, 10/15/1888

So if Twain not only used a word, but used it 219 times in a book, wouldn’t it stand to reason that he wanted that word for a specific reason? Probably, but what happens when that book is recognized as a classic work of American literature, and that particular word is considered one of the most offensive racial epithets in the English language? Well, that combination makes for some heated controversy.

So most critics are pulling out the ‘censorship’ argument, and they do have a point – to an extent. Yes, replacing an offensive word in a book is technically a form of censorship; however, my personal opinion of true censorship is anything that attempts to block access to an idea or prevent public consumption. Whether or not it’s true, NewSouth Books claims that replacing the offending word will help get the novel back into students’ hands in school systems where it has been banned. If this works, then a mild form of censorship is actually helping students access these ideas – which is sort of the opposite of censorship (again, my opinion). What the critics have to remember is that it isn’t just the “N-word” that causes controversy in Huck Finn. The ideals and the society that promote the use of the “N-word” in the book are the true source of controversy. Racism and social reform are still vital and viable discussion points in the novel, regardless of what adjective precedes Jim’s name. In fact, if I were teaching the “updated” version of the novel, my opening discussion would focus on this current controversy. Examples:

Essential Question #1: Is it ok to change an author’s words if people are offended by them?

Essential Question #2: When does changing words become censorship, and when does it violate an author’s First Amendment rights?

Essential Question #3: Does it violate YOUR rights as a student if you don’t have access to the original work?

You can easily pull a full day’s worth of discussion out of this one issue. Instead of sitting in our ivory literary towers and condemning censorship of an American classic, why not pose the questions to our students and make them think critically about it? You might be surprised how many students stand up against changing these words – even in a society where the “N-word” still holds such immense power.

That’s actually another interesting point in this discussion – the power of this word. Now, I’m definitely a free speech advocate, but you won’t find me using the actual word on this blog, and it’s because I’m afraid. I’m afraid that even typing the word in an innocent context could have disastrous repercussions. I’m a new teacher looking for a job, and I know that no principal is going to risk taking a chance on someone involved with a controversy over race. It’s a sad fact, but it’s true. So the question we should ask our students is why this word has so much power. Where did it come from? Who gave it this power? Why is it ok for some people to say, but not others? When is it ok to use, and is there a number limit on how many times it can be used?

My theory (one that has been proven correct in the classrooms I’ve observed) is that students are never asked these questions. They are simply imbued with the knowledge that certain words are offensive and that saying, hearing, or reading these words should be met with shocked gasps and cries of “That’s racist!” I actually had a personal experience with this.

I was subbing in a Language Arts classroom, and the assignment was to read a story aloud and answer questions. The story was written in the nineteenth century and used the word ‘negro’ as an adjective. When the class reached the word, it erupted in yells and gasps. It took literally five minutes to bring the kids back to order. When I asked why there was a commotion, someone yelled “That’s racist!” I challenged the student and asked why. The response was less than eloquent, but it was what I would expect from an eighth grade student. The fact was that there was simply a stigma about the “N-word” and anything that sounded remotely similar. These kids had never been exposed to this word in an exploratory context. They had never been asked to think critically about it or understand its history, or understand that there was a time when this was a universally accepted term…it blew their minds when I told them that there was a “United Negro College Fund” and that the “CP” in NAACP stands for “Colored People” – organizations that are run by the same demographic of people that should supposedly be offended by those words.

So maybe there is a reason to keep the “N-word” in Huck Finn – if only to force students to confront the word and understand it in a literary context. 219 uses makes it unavoidable in the novel – as unavoidable as the term was in real society when the novel was written. In many ways, removing the word from this work glosses over a serious issue that needs to be discussed, and in glossing over the issue, this censorship only reinforces the supposed “power” that society still gives the epithet. Whether or not you agree with NewSouth’s release, progressive teachers can find effective ways to confront the serious issues in the novel and present them for discussion in a safe and rational environment. That’s just my opinion, and it’s what I’d try to do.

NewSouth Books has a page dedicated to this discussion on its website. In my opinion, it does a great job of representing both sides of the issue.

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3 Responses to Ripping the literary world in “Twain”

  1. Julie says:

    Great post! This controversy is a terrific case study in the old argument of “Which should rule: author’s intent or reader perception?” (By the way, that’s potentially another essential question.)

    I especially liked your example of your students’ reactions to the word “Negro.” It reminded me of a similar controversy in my own life. As a young reporter for a daily newspaper, I was assigned, along with another reporter and a photographer, to spend two weeks traveling through small rural towns in northern Louisiana to compare and contrast the local economies. It was a great team effort and we wrote award-winning stuff, but one of the few hitches came when I was collaborating on writing the lead story with the other reporter. He wanted to use the word “niggardly” in an entirely appropriate and accurate context. Look it up — the word has nothing to do with race whatsoever: It means “stingy” or “miserly.” I strongly objected to using the word and talked him out of it. Yes, the usage and context were appropriate in our story, but how many of our readers were going to jump to the worst possible conclusion rather than go to the dictionary and look up the word? My argument was that our work — and its purpose — would be subsumed in the angry assumptions and misperceptions of our readers’ reactions. My argument prevailed: We changed it. Readers focused on the content and we didn’t get angry calls ignorantly accusing us of using racist language.

    That situation was sort of the reverse of the Twain controversy — we DIDN’T use our “controversial” word to ensure clarity of authors’ intent. Twain DID use his controversial word to ensure clarity of author’s intent.

    And that’s the problem with changing Twain’s word … the editing not only change the word, but changes the setting, the mood, the tone, etc. In the quest to be “not offensive,” real learning opportunities and comprehension of a unique time and place are being edited out too. Where does this end? Do we take the n-word out of “Roots” next? Will Nazi guards be referring to concentration camp inmates as “gentlemen” in the next version of “Night?”

    Twain’s language may not be palatable, but that doesn’t make it gratuitous. It has purpose: it teaches. Watering it down may make it taste better, but it also makes the medicine a lot less effective.

    • survivingenglish says:

      Julie-

      Thanks for the comment. A while back I read a story about a company executive that used the word “niggardly” in a board meeting or presentation of some sort. His audience reacted as you figured yours might. Even though it was finally understood that the word was not related to any racist epithet, the incident still had an extremely negative effect on the exec’s career, and his character was permanently damaged.

      I think your observation about author’s intent is spot on, and I agree that the effects of changing the word in Twain’s novel are much greater than most casual readers realize. Applying this form of censorship to works like “Night” seems even more extreme, and almost silly. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Jewish community found the idea of “updating” Holocaust literature to be even more offensive than any controversy the original work might cause.

      By the way, I like your medicine analogy, and I may have to steal it.🙂

  2. Pingback: Mr. Franco: Science Teacher « Surviving English

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