Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Gilded history...

NewSouth Books is publishing a newly edited version of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn which is raising a bit of controversy in the literary world, from what I understand. For those who don't know, the new edition removes all use of the "n-word" (which is used, I believe, over 200 times in the course of the novel) and replaces it with the word "slave" in order to update the book for 21st century political correctness and encourage more teachers to include this book in their curriculum on American literature. I don't want to get into any big debate on whether or not this is censorship (in my personal opinion it's not exactly, seeing as the editor doesn't want or expect this edition to take the place of all non-edited's more like the radio version of a pop song), but I did want to express some thoughts I had on the subject.

In my opinion, this change doesn't make sense and significantly affects certain key elements of the novel. First and foremost, I feel it's important to point out that those two words are in no way interchangeable. As deplorable an institution as slavery is, the word "slave" isn't derogatory. It's an accurate label and description of certain people's social status at the time. The "n-word," however, is a term deeply rooted in hatred and racism. Replacing one for the other completely changes the connotations of Huck's character and his relationship with Jim, which are the crux of the novel. Secondly, this change takes away from the historical accuracy and authenticity of the novel. Such blatant racism was a defining characteristic of this time period. To erase that from the book is just an attempt to sweeten our history and there's no need for that. All peoples have periods of their history that they look back on with regret. Slavery is just one of America's, for instance. To cover it up in this way is a disservice.

I know one argument for this new edition is the idea that it will get it taught in more schools. It was taught in my eleventh grade English class. Granted, I live in an area with a rather low African American population with not one African American student in this particular class which could very well have some baring on any lack of controversy we found. As a pinnacle of American literature, I strongly think it should be taught in schools. And yes, removing that particular word may help it get into classrooms. But at that point, do we even want it in classrooms if it's a misrepresentation of history?

Like, I said, just some thoughts I had on the subject. Feel free to disagree with me... And for a really in depth analysis of the editor's introduction to the new edition and a rebuttal to his arguments, read Adam's post at Roof Beam Reader. He's much more articulate than I am, and makes a compelling argument.


Adam said...

As you know, I do believe it is a type of censorship - minor, yes, and far less significant than banning the book, for instance. But, I agree with you that the real problem is 1) the "danger" word and the proposed replacement are not interchangeable, which convolutes the original meaning and intent of the novel; and 2) that great literature which stands the test of time must remain historically accurate and significant, and we are charged with that preservation.

I think we're on the same page with this one - at least 98.5% of it. ;)

Thanks for mentioning my post, too - I didn't see that at first!

Veronica said...

Adam, I guess I see it kind of (KIND OF) on par with radio edits maybe? Like when you listen to the radio you get the clean version of songs, but you're equally able to go buy the explicit version for yourself. However, while we disagree on that point, you're right in saying we're in agreement on the rest. It's an interesting issue, at the very least, and I was greatly appreciative of your post about it.

Adam said...

I definitely understand that argument and I think, for modern and popular fiction, it is a sound one. What I worry about, though, is muddling such a profound, history-making, and society-shaping text as this one. It feels like a slippery-slope, to me. Things like large-scale censorship tend to happen over time, in baby steps, and they generally start out from places of sound reasoning and genuine (understandable) concern.

I'm not sure if there's a real difference, I guess, but I feel that there is - I would prefer not to offer up an "alternative" version of a classic text but, instead, encourage the right reading of it (which includes reading it at the right time/maturity level).

I also think that most -bleeped- songs still get their true point across, which is not as cut-and-dry when one essentially changes the reading of this book by changing more than 200 of its words.

Jenners said...

This is one of those issues where I'm not quite sure what I think. On one hand, I don't think it is right to muck about with a book for political correctness. On the other hand, it is such a charged term and one that would be difficult to teach. I'm glad I'm not the one making these decisions.

Veronica said...

I agree, Jenners. While I find it interesting to discuss with others, being a teacher or administrator who actually had to deal with the issue would be an extremely difficult position to have.

And Adam, I definitely agree with your point about maturity. Controversial issues are important to analyze and discuss, but not before a person is ready and has the capacity to do so.