January 05, 2011

Mark Twain Must Be Spinning Like A Lathe

As a teacher of high school English, I have the great pleasure to teach “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” every year. A part of teaching that indispensable work is discussing the issues that cause a great many people to try to censor it each and every year. I am always delighted to discover that my students--bless their little pointed heads--universally express surprise and outrage upon learning that people--on the left and right--want to censor the book. Yes, some of the kids have the vague feeling that they should feel uncomfortable with the word “nigger,” because it’s like, well, prejudiced or something, but they all understand that Twain was not using the word to denigrate blacks, but to help the people of his time see blacks through the eyes of Huck and Jim, as people equally worthy of respect and human dignity.

Comes now the equally indispensable Michelle Malkin (here) and Hot Air (here) to inform a public desperate for sanitized versions of literary classics of an outfit known as New South Books that is publishing a version of “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” without the words “nigger” or “injun.” Both words will be replaced with “slave.”

It’s hard to know what Twain, arguably the greatest satirist America has ever produced, would have thought of this. On one hand, he delighted in stirring up controversy, so he doubtless would have enjoyed the fuss. But on the other hand, he worked for seven years on this book, agonizing over getting it right. He did, and the very words modern literary police find distressing are the very words that Twain used to change innumerable hearts and minds. I can think of no single book that has done more over a longer period of time to magnificently champion the cause of human rights without beating people over the head with outrage. Changing even a word is akin to a contemporary composer “improving” the works of Mozart or Bach to make them more “accessible” to contemporary listeners.

A related cautionary tale is the continuing saga over “niggardly,” a perfectly respectable adjective that means “cheap, closefisted or stingy.” The etymology of the word is probably Scandinavian, a part of the world not known for having anything to do with blackness. John Derbyshire of National Review Online wrote a delightful article about this, available here. In 2002 a North Carolina 4th grade teacher, Stephanie Bell, was reprimanded for using the word and condemned to “sensitivity training” when a parent declared herself offended. I had the displeasure of watching a “community activist,” if memory serves, on The O’Reily Factor soon after the incident. Said activist proudly proclaimed that even though she realized that the word actually had nothing to do with race, it sounded like “nigger,” or something, and therefore Ms. Bell ought to be fired. Since then, others have suffered for having similarly advanced vocabularies. Sigh.

As a writer of satire, Twain was more than aware of people who could not or would not “get it.” Arguably, an entire chapter of “Huck Finn” (be careful of accidental letter transposition) is devoted to this very topic. Considering the desecration of his masterpiece, Mr. Twain is doubtless spinning like a lathe. So should we all be.

Posted by MikeM at January 5, 2011 09:18 PM

Because mention of pork and pork products is offensive to Muslims, references to pork should be changed to poultry references. Henceforth, Shakespeare's great tragic hero Hamlet will become Chicklet.

Posted by: RNB at January 6, 2011 08:34 AM

Back in the 1990s, an official in the DC city government was forced to retire because he had the temerity to use the word niggling. Even though those to whom he was speaking had no idea what the word meant, they knew it sounded like a word a white person wasn't supposed to use.

Drip, drip, drip...speech codes, hate speech, censorship - where does it end.

Tarheel Repub Out!

Posted by: Tarheel Repub at January 6, 2011 10:32 AM

I saw a Tom Sawyer movie on TV late last year. In the movie, Injun Joe falls to his death in a hole during a struggle with Tom over the treasure.

What?! This is not how Injun Joe died. He starved to death trapped in a cave that was sealed shut with an iron door after Tom and Becky almost lost their lives. Adulterating Mark Twain's stories is an outrage.

Posted by: George at January 6, 2011 10:47 AM

This is just the efforts of a no-account literature professor trying to associate his own name with that of Mark Twain, without of course doing anything in the way of perspnal merit in literature. The good news is that the original works of Twain will still be available to anyone who cares to buy it, borrow it or download it.

Posted by: Professor Hale at January 6, 2011 11:01 AM

Reminds me of the series of Dilbert cartoons where the company is creating a digital archive of the world's great artworks. The boss sees it as an opportunity to 'fix' them.

Posted by: styrgwillidar at January 6, 2011 01:16 PM