05 January 2011

Cutting Through the Huck Finn Weeds

The edition of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn that I wrote about on Monday hit the national news today, with boringly predictable results: lots of complaints about “political correctness,” censorship, how other people are simple-mindedly misreading the book. I made up a few rules for myself for sorting through the noise.

1) If you say that it’s appropriate to use the “n word” in classrooms, but completely avoid using it in your own essay, then you lose a point. And for that reason, I’m going to use offensive terms with scare-quotes instead of euphemisms. Internet filtering programs, beware.

2) If you’re personally affected by the use of the terms “nigger” and “Injun,” then I’m more interested in your opinion than if you’re (like me) a white person for whom the issue is more abstract. Those words aren’t generically offensive—they’re particularly offensive because they derogate particular people.

Thus, I’ve sought out responses from African-American writers like Jamelle Bouie at The Atlantic and Elon James White at Salon, and from folks with African-American family members like Ann Freeman at Upside My Head. (But Freeman loses a point under rule #1. [REFEREES’ RULING: Freeman supports the use of the unedited Huckleberry Finn in the classroom, but opposes teachers’ or students’ use of the word in classroom discussions. So is that worth a point or not? It’s unexpected nuances like these that can make the issue so thought-provoking.])

3) If you’re a teacher who’s used Huckleberry Finn in the classroom recently, then I’m more interested. Some examples I’ve found include Sara Goodman as Sara*ndipity; David Ulin at the LA Times’s Jacket Copy; and Biblioklept before news of this edition broke. (But Goodman loses a point under rule #1.) Jinx as a former classroom teacher and a black woman gets double points.

Students and parents do sometimes object to Huckleberry Finn because of its language, as this news item from Seattle in 2003 explores. Teachers do sometimes choose not to use it, as described in this article from Multicultural Education in 2006. It’s more valuable to see how educators and students address the book’s challenges than to see an outsider loftily insist that they should.

I’d especially like to see some professionals address not just how to draw useful lessons from Twain’s use of “Injun” and “nigger,” but also how to do so in an environment increasingly concerned with preparing kids for standardized tests. Is there enough time in the school day? Does the book work better in certain schools, or certain grades?

4) If you use this incident to complain about “political correctness” on the left, I simply laugh at you. Not just because of the tired cliché, but because you’ve made a foolish assumption. The editor, Prof. Alan Gribben of Auburn, presented himself as a victim of the radical left in a political-academic controversy at the University of Texas back in the 1990s. For details, see Julius G. Getman’s In the Company of Scholars: The Struggle for the Soul of Higher Education, John K. Wilson’s The Myth of Political Correctness: The Conservative Attack on Higher Education, and Gribben’s own version of events.

Gribben is quite clear in his introduction to the new edition about why he feels it has value. I quoted that introduction on Monday (PDF download). Opponents should take his arguments into account before making any assumptions about the thinking behind this book.

5) If you make up ridiculous scenarios of what this editing might lead to, then I’m not interested in your opinion. This is about changing one word (or 236, depending on how we count) in Huckleberry Finn and two in Tom Sawyer. It doesn’t change the book’s plot, characters, or themes. It doesn’t affect any other editions or copies already on shelves.

And it’s not about just any offensive language. Novelist Walter Kirn joked, “Let's add offensive words to American novels that don't have enough of them. Little Women could use a few more 'shits.'” But “shit” doesn’t demean a particular class of people. If we want an equivalent, the joke would suggest renaming Little Women to “Little Cunts.” But who would say that (outside of the porn industry)?

TOMORROW: What the public domain means.


david elzey said...

while my opinion would falter under the rigor of your outlined conditions, i do have one quibble.

When you say "It doesn’t change the book’s plot, characters, or themes" to replace the word nigger with slave it does change twain's reason for using it: the offending word connotes a very specific way of thinking.

i cannot imagine that twain would have thought the words interchangeable. to call someone a slave is a question of property and rights, but the implication in the word nigger is that the person addressed is something less than human.

that it is used so often in huck finn underscores the casual nature by which white people considered an entire race of people so inferior as to not even bat an eye at the assumption. replacing the word nigger with slave alters the message significantly, i believe.

so while i may be white, no longer a teacher, never had the opportunity to teach the book, and not personally affected by the terms nigger or injun, i do still feel the change philosophically changes twains intent in painting an unflattering satirical eye on the south.

Monica Edinger said...

My main problem here is the same one I have with the edited versions of Doctor Dolittle --- the author didn't have a hand in either of them. Dahl, on the other hand, made his own changes re the Oompa-Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

But it also bothers me as a teacher because I can see school districts selecting this edition whether or not the teachers want it. And it reinforces the idea that teachers aren't capable of teaching this so need to be handed something that takes care of the difficult stuff for them. If I decided or was required to teach these texts I'd damn well think hard about how to do so and do it. (Did you see Ebony's post on childlit about this? Very worthwhile.)

J. L. Bell said...

Dave, I agree, and I think Alan Gribben would agree, that changing “nigger” to “slave” changes the Twain’s picture of ante-bellum Missouri. The question is whether doing so in one edition of the book, clearly labeled and not intended for scholarly study, is worth the supposed benefits. I don’t think that question’s been answered yet, and a lot of people are missing or avoiding it entirely.

I’ve seen folks make slippery-slope analogies suggesting that Gribben’s editing is the equivalent of taking the threat of lynching out of To Kill a Mockingbird, or letting the dog live in Old Yeller. Apparently, those folks feel that inserting the word “slave” 200+ times into a novel means that it’s no longer about slavery. That’s obvious nonsense.

It’s more of a subjective judgment, but I don’t think Twain’s depiction of slave-owners in his books as obtuse exploiters is changed in more than a small way by not seeing them use the word “nigger.” Enslaving a person and his children for life should be a much bigger deal than labeling that person. And Huck’s decision to reject the values of his society in favor of actual humanity still comes across.

I might think differently if Twain made a clear distinction between “slaves” and “niggers.” But I don’t recall any free black characters in Huckleberry Finn (until Jim is emancipated at the end).

I’m waiting for someone to make the argument that Gribben and his publisher (both white southerners) are, intentionally or not, erasing Huck Finn’s implicit themes about racism in the late 1800s and beyond by suggesting that the problems it addresses ended with slavery in 1865. But I haven’t seen that yet.

J. L. Bell said...

Monica, once an author dies, as I’m sure you know, then any chance of getting approval from that author goes away. That would freeze works in their final author-authorized form.

If that were the rule, no one could reinsert the “Wasp in the Wig” chapter in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass. Wordsworth’s original draft of the Prelude would be suppressed. There might even be an argument for restricting major changes in adaptations, like the MGM Wizard of Oz portraying Dorothy’s journey as a dream.

Some authors’ estates try to exercise such control while copyright lasts: Samuel Beckett’s has put limits on how Godot is staged. Other estates grab the opportunity to produce new copyrights by authorizing new editions, supposedly more in tune with an author’s intentions.

I’m skeptical about a lot of those editions. But the power of the public domain means that eventually we get a choice. Even if a school system decides to adopt this “NewSouth” edition of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, the original texts are available for free practically everywhere.

Does this edition signal that school systems don’t trust all teachers to handle the book’s issues competently, or all students to take them in? I think the last decade has shown those things are already happening.

Personally, I’d prefer that Twain’s original text be taught, with its lessons on racism, the power of language, and how one era’s progressivism can seem regressive a century later. But personally, I’m not managing that classroom.

saraegoodman said...

To be fair, I couldn't have actually said the word in my blog post. A lot of my students and their parents read my blog and I didn't feel comfortable using it in my post for that reason. I made the decision partially because I've made it clear that I don't abide by that word being used in any modern writing, and I didn't want to be hypocritical by using it when I've told my students not to, but also because had any parents complained about my use of it, even in the context of this discussion, my administration would not have sided with me, and teachers these days walk a very fine line with what they're allowed to do and say in their personal lives these days.

To be fair though, even though I am hugely uncomfortable saying it, when reading passages aloud to the class, I DO say the actual word in that situation. But I always discuss the context that it is used in with my class first to make sure that everyone fully understands why the language is in the book and that it is not to be used in the classroom as a weapon.

Thanks for the shout out though!

Also, I discussed the issue with my classes yesterday, and my students were absolutely outraged that people could be ignorant enough to not understand the use of the word in the book--as their teacher, it was a proud moment! :-)

Tegan said...

I keep going back and forth on it, but I think I am mostly in David's camp... I'm just not sure what to think about it, and I don't feel very qualified to argue any particular point of view as well. But I'm really glad to read this, you've given me some very good food for thought.

I'll just leave with one last comment. When the book was challenged somewhere, I recall seeing video of a young man get up to testify. He was black, and his words still make me proud of the human race. He stated that censoring the book was wrong, and that he'd read it and no one could ever take that away from him. But they could cripple the education of every child after him by banning the book from the classroom.

Anonymous said...

I don't want to go on too long, especially as my opinion, like David Elzays, starts out with several strikes against it, adding in anonymity, too.

I agree with Roger Sutton. I assume you've read his comments on an earlier version of this kind of bowdlerization. You haven't addressed any of the complications of this substitution that he raises.

I think that when you change one thing in a text, you take responsibility for all the other things you could have changed, but didn't. I have one set of standards for a book published in 1884 and entirely different set for a book published in 2010. Is Gribben going to fix everything else about the book that we would find inappropriate in 2010? Or all those other regressive material fine, just not THIS regressive material?

I am white and my children are white, but speaking as a parent, I don't feel that Huckleberry Finn should be assigned in school. It can be, but I wouldn't see it forced on a student to read or on a teacher to teach. That said, no child of mine will read this perverted version as a school assignment and I would do what I could to prevent any child from being given it as an assignment. I'd feel about it pretty much the same way I'd feel about the Troll abridgment. If kids can't handle the material, then they can't. That's fine. But don't give them a dumbed down version. There are other worthwhile things to read.

J. L. Bell said...

Sara, thanks for your comment from the classroom, and I’m glad your students feel confident about being able to address the book’s themes and language.

I guess I do have more freedom in the language I choose since I’m not supposed to be anybody’s role model.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for your comments, Anonymous. An interesting point that censoring one element of the book can imply that everything else in it is acceptable.

I should say that I don’t begrudge anyone the right to express opinions on this issue simply because they’re (like me) white, not teachers, and not parents.

It’s just that I don’t need to surf the internet to find a white, middle-class, progressively-minded writer and avid reader who studied literature in college and has a strong aversion to changing Huck Finn in any way. To hear that opinion, I don’t even have to roll over in bed.

But precisely because it’s easy for me to think that way, I want to hear different thoughts, and I want to be sure I don’t end up imposing that attitude onto people who are (a) personally insulted by the language, or (b) responsible for actually teaching the book.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks, Tegan, for your thoughts. I’m mostly on the fence myself. I don’t see a need for this edition, and, as I said on Monday, I don’t plan to support it with my money.

But I’m happy to defend the editor’s and publisher’s right to offer the book, and I want to consider why they think it might have value.

I’m also contrarian enough to dislike how so many people are responding to this news with exaggerated complaints and the implication that there should be only one way to come down on the issue. Even if that’s where I start, too.

Ann Freeman said...

Hi! Great post and thanks for linking to mine! I do want to clarify that I do me your criteria in #1 as I don't think white folks, whether they are teaching the book in a classroom or for any other reason, should use the N-word. You need to teach the book the way it was originally intended but find a creative way around saying the word. Others may disagree with me, but from my experiences as a white person in a black family, that's my point of view. Ann

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks, Ann, for the comment, clarification, and original blog post.

MissA said...

we read this book last year and my teacher replaced the n-word with Negro. I'm Black and I don't think the book should have bene changed. HOWEVER, I don't want the book being re-aloud and having to hear that word over and over agian (but then again I listen to some hip-hop that uses it, although I'm trying to cut back on that).

I also just wanted to point out that I've seen the n-word pop up WAY more this week in the media than I ever have before. So much for protecting us Black kids ;)

But seriously it should have been left alone. I don't think 'Injun' really changes the meaning of the book so I don't think it matters either way.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for your comment! You make a good point about news of this edition prompting more public appearances of the offending racial terms rather than less. If that’s actually moved the cultural conversation forward, it could be worthwhile, but I fear a lot of people are repeating the same points.

I also think that more than a little of the discomfort with Twain’s language in Huck Finn comes not from the students who have to hear it, but from teachers who have to read or analyze it in front of those students, and worry about the awkwardness and consequences.

At some point our society might be different enough that the words’ offensiveness is no longer so visceral, and the terms have to be explained like insults in Shakespeare. But we’re not there yet. A lot of people seem to land on your teacher’s solution: using the original text, but not reading it all out loud.

J. L. Bell said...

Thought-provoking comments on Huck Finn’s plotting and language from former teacher Rachel Levy here. (Thanks to Gail Gauthier for the link.)