Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Bowdlerizing Twain

The publishers of Twain's classic, "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" -- arguably the quintessential American novel -- are releasing a revised edition, replacing all 219 uses of the word "nigger" with "slave."

I disagree with many individuals who say that such a change won't meaningfully affect the story. One of the major themes is Huck's gradual realization of the full personhood of Jim, as a man deserving of respect. The word "nigger" robs Jim of that personhood, even more so than "slave." I fear such a change compromises the integrity of the work.

Beyond damage to the book, I believe this move to be damaging to us societally. I'm reminded of a classroom debate I had with an African American woman over Faulkner's frequent use of the word "nigger." She argued that word was offensive and should be removed; I argued just the opposite. Of course that word is offensive, but to remove it is to destroy the historical context of stories of the American South during the 19th and even 20th century.

I would also argue that such editing also does a disservice to generations of suffering African Americans. The word "slave" doesn't have the same biting sting that "nigger" does. It's supposed to make us feel uncomfortable because it brings to mind a long, dark chapter of American history. Erasing that chapter of pain and oppression and repressing the memories of centuries-long injustices is far more offensive than any word could ever be.

I leave you with this clip from "The Daily Show," which I believe sums this scenario up pretty well.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Mark Twain Controversy
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1 comment:

  1. The Daily Show take on it was great. Luckily, it seems this version of the book is being blasted from just about every direction, and I've seen very little defense of it. The fact that the book is sympathetic to Jim and not at all promoting racism makes it completely ridiculous to whitewash it and remove some of the context of the 1880s when it was written and the ~1830s when it was set.