Here we go again: This week, NewSouth Books, a publisher based in Montgomery, Ala., announced plans to release an omnibus edition of Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" with a couple of offensive words removed. Most prominent, of course, is "nigger," which appears 219 times in "Huckleberry Finn" and has been the source of repeated efforts to ban or restrict the novel since it was published 125 years ago. In this new edition, the word in question has been replaced by "slave."
To give their project credibility, NewSouth teamed with Alan Gribben, chair of the English department at Alabama's Auburn University, to do the clean-up job. According to Publishers Weekly, Gribben was motivated by his own deep discomfort over the novel's language and by the reactions of younger readers. "After a number of talks," he told PW, "I was sought out by local teachers, and to a person, they said we would love to teach ... 'Huckleberry Finn,' but we feel we can't do it anymore. In the new classroom, it's really not acceptable."
I agree: The N-word is not acceptable -- although I'm not sure "slave" is much of an improvement, with its unthinking conflation of servitude and race. Like professor Gribben, I've discussed "Huckleberry Finn" in the classroom, and it is always difficult and awkward to work around that word. This, however, is precisely why it needs to remain part of our experience of "Huckleberry Finn."
Literature, after all, is not there to reassure us; it's supposed to reveal us, in all our contradictory complexity. The fact that it makes us uncomfortable is part of the point -- like all great art, it demands that we confront our half-truths and self-deceptions, the justifications and evasions by which we measure out our daily lives.
Huck is a perfect case in point, a rebel who can't reconcile his love for the escaped slave Jim with his cultural indoctrination, who goes back and forth about whether his companion is fully a human being.
“All right, then, I’ll go to hell,” he announces when he finally decides the matter. The choice of words is telling, since in choosing not to return Jim to slavery, Huck articulates the central moral argument of the book. This is the point Twain is making, that there is a difference between custom and conscience, between social convention and the ethics of the individual. At the heart of this is the issue of language, the words we use and how we use them, and what they tell us about the reality we construct.
On its website, NewSouth notes that this new edition of "Huckleberry Finn" will not supersede previous editions of the novel: "If the publication sparks good debate about how language impacts learning or about the nature of censorship or the way in which racial slurs exercise their baneful influence, then our mission in publishing this new edition of Twain’s works will be more emphatically fulfilled," the publisher declares.
I don't know how that happens, how debate is stirred by sweeping that which disturbs us under the rug. Professor Gribben ought to understand this; it's supposed to be in the nature of his academic work. As for NewSouth, with its politically correct agenda, it might be useful to go back to Twain.
In 1885, the same year "Huckleberry Finn" was published, Twain wrote an essay called "On the Decay of the Art of Lying" that seems to speak directly to the current contretemps. "The highest perfection of politeness," he suggests there, "is only a beautiful edifice, built, from the base to the dome, of graceful and gilded forms of charitable and unselfish lying."
-- David L. Ulin
Photo: Mark Twain, in an undated photo. Credit: The Mark Twain House & Museum / Associated Press