Op-Ed: What The Huck Did They Do To The Mark Twain Classic?

New York, December 20, 1909. "S.L. Clemens." Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, aboard the Bermudian after a trip to Bermuda, four months before his death. 5x7 glass negative, George Grantham Bain Collection. Source: Shorpy
“There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.” ― Ray Bradbury

BETWEEN THE LINES: About 18 months ago, a debate took place at a Canarsie elementary school over a book of poems, when parents objected to some content, such as an anti-war poem with a line that President Bush “loves war so much he gets an erection,” and another about a crack-addicted hooker performing lewd acts.

City Councilman Charles Barron, who wrote the forward to the 2006 collection — which was authored by his goddaughter, Tylibah Washington — defended the book, noting it “speaks to the experiences and struggles of inner city youth,” though he subsequently acknowledged portions of it might be inappropriate for pre-teens.

Nevertheless, in a follow-up, Barron — who is currently seeking the Democratic nomination for the newly-created 8th Congressional District seat — objected to editing the poetry book, yet he called for removing Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from classrooms because the “despicable N” word is used numerous times.

This argument subsequently resurfaced when a publisher issued a revised edition of Huck Finn and changed more than 200 mentions of the “N” word, plus a smaller number from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and replaced them with the word “slaves.” Other alterations included “Injun Joe” changed to “Indian Joe” and “half-breed” to “half-blood,” presumably to avoid an added chorus of disapproval from Native Americans in search of equal treatment.

When political correctness is used to alter celebrated works, which contain conventional language and attitudes at the time they were published, it’s deceptive and disgraceful, no matter how repugnant some might perceive them.

When Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer were published, in 1885 and 1876 respectively, the “N” word was not necessarily uttered with malice, but rather out of habit. As a result, censoring the word today dilutes and misrepresents the original narratives.

Rather than revise the books, perhaps it would be more practical — and educational — to explain to students the context of the period when the words were written, so they could have a better understanding of slurs or other offensive content.

A Twain scholar opposed to the edits said: “The word is terrible and hurtful,” but noted that it “conveys the language and attitudes of Missouri in the 1840s” when laws were being passed in the South to deprive blacks of their civil rights.

Regardless, one of the basic lessons Huck Finn learns — and the novel teaches us — is that Jim, the runaway slave he befriends, is a man more than an object of servitude.

Alan Gribben, an eminent Twain scholar and Auburn University professor, edited the NewSouth Books edition of Huck Finn, which includes a 3,300-word foreword that explains his decision to censor the novel because teaching it made him uncomfortable.

If an extended essay was necessary to clarify and defend editorial choices, maybe it wasn’t such a good idea in the first place.

Who could possibly think the word “slave” is more suitable to African-Americans than the “N” word? The word “slave” was not even included in the U.S. Constitution, as blacks are merely referred to as “all other persons.”

Use of the racist slur has tapered off in some circles, except for those inherently racist or ignorant, as political correctness slowly demanded its exclusion. Regrettably — depending on your point of view — the “N” word is more commonly used in black youths’ street jargon. When they refer to each other with that word, it tends to demonstrate a kinship and perhaps removes the sting compared to when a white person utters it.

Even so, most adult African-Americans do not like the word, regardless of who utters it, and refrain from speaking it.

Though Barron wanted the “N” word removed from the Twain classics, he never made a similar request for the slur to be edited out of vintage rap records in which artists made what they felt was a valid social statement.

Should the defunct group NWA (N—– With Attitude) change its name to Slaves With Attitude?

What’s more, let’s hope the revisions in the Twain books don’t start a trend to tinker with film, theater and music classics.

Should movies like Gone with the Wind, In the Heat of the Night and others, also be censored? Can you imagine how substituting a specific word, which some genteel people tend to dislike, would alter the passion of Rhett Butler’s final comment to Scarlett O’Hara: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a darn”?

Should the Bible be edited to remove the word “God” to appease atheists? Then again, why would an atheist be reading the Bible?

The only constructive fallout from the Twain book edits would be if it spurred inquisitive children. A child’s inquiring mind can make a cat’s curiosity look blasé by comparison.  Often, when kids are cautioned to avoid something that’s not for their eyes or ears, their interest is aroused. Consequently, some would possibly seek the uncensored Huck Finn just to see what the fuss is all about, and then ask why the changes were made. Teachers and parents should be prepared to handle such questions from curious pupils.

Although Gribben may have intended to promote public amity, most scholars consider it sinful to alter a work of art that has become a classic — albeit periodically criticized — for well over a century, even to appease modern readers.

Censoring or revising classic literature to accommodate contemporary sensitivities makes as much sense as covering up works of art to conceal nudity that may offend some viewers.

Worst of all, politically correct edits interfere with the indispensable right of free speech and, as Ray Bradbury noted, it’s just another method of book burning.

This column is dedicated to the memory of Ray Bradbury, who died on June 5. Conformity, ignorance and censorship were key themes in his classic sci-fi novel, Fahrenheit 451.

Neil S. Friedman is a veteran reporter and photographer, and spent 15 years as an editor for a Brooklyn weekly newspaper. He also did public relations work for Showtime, The Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson. Friedman contributes a weekly column called “Between the Lines” on life, culture and politics in Sheepshead Bay.

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