The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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'Huck Finn' is now just as clean as an Eminem album at Wal-Mart

January 6, 2011 | 12:50 pm

Mark_twain Mark Twain loved to be the center of attention, so you gotta figure that our greatest American novelist would love the idea that more than 125 years after it was written, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" is still causing a mess of controversy. In case you've missed it, an Alabama-based publisher has announced plans to release an omnibus edition of "Huck" and Twain's "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" excising a couple of offensive words, notably "nigger," which appears 219 times in "Huck Finn." The new expurgated edition has been endorsed by Alan Gribben, the chairman of the English department at Auburn University, who has replaced each reference to "nigger" with the word "slave."

The reason is pretty simple. "Huck Finn" doesn't get taught much anymore, because in an era of political correctness, a host of teachers, parents, school boards are a little queasy about having the complicated cultural conversation that ensues when young readers are subjected to the repeated use of the word "nigger." So Gribben (who's white) figures its better to switch than fight, figuring a cleaned-up version will allow tens of thousands more kids an opportunity to read "Huck."

Nonetheless, the proposed new edition has sparked a mini-firestorm in pop culture circles, with all sorts of academics and literary types weighing in, largely against the idea. Keith Olbermann did a segment about the decision on his show the other night. Even Roger Ebert has had his say, tweeting on Wednesday that "I'd rather be called a nigger than a slave," then after getting a bunch of blowback from the blogosphere, revising his opinion, saying, "I'll never be called a nigger or a slave, so I should have shut the **** up."

My colleague David Ulin, our book critic, has his own firm opinions on the subject. He argues against the new edition, saying that Huck's use of such a foul phrase is an exemplary example of how literature is "supposed to reveal us, in all our contradictory complexity. The fact that it makes us uncomfortable is part of the point." I couldn't agree more. But on the other hand, if Twain were around today, I suspect he'd handle the issue the way most artists have--by doing what he had to do to sell as many books as possible.

It may well be a bad idea to bowdlerize your best book, but that's just what most modern popular artists have done in recent years with their own work. In Hollywood, virtually every filmmaker kowtows to the Motion Picture Assn. of America ratings board (an organization just as priggish as any Texas school board), cutting their movies to get a rating that allows the picture to be seen by as wide an audience as possible. Filmmakers routinely clean up language so a film or TV show can be shown on cable TV or airplanes.

Pop artists, with rare exception, do the same thing. More than 40 years ago, the Rolling Stones performed their hit "Let's Spend the Night Together" on "The Ed Sullivan Show," then the biggest TV variety show (and sales tool) of its time. But Sullivan insisted that the Stones change the title line to "let's spend some time together." Mick Jagger may have ostentatiously rolled his eyes when he sang the phrase, but he did it, because he wanted to sell more records. Today's hip-hop artists, from Jay-Z to Eminem, do the same thing, recording "clean" versions of their songs so their albums can be sold at Wal-Mart and other rigidly family-oriented retailers. (One rare exception: Green Day refused to clean up their 2009 album, "21st Century Breakdown," forgoing all the sales the band would have enjoyed by having it on the shelves at Wal-Mart.)

Nearly everyone else has made their peace with the clean-up police, figuring it's worth a little artistic compromise here and there to sell their films and albums in every corner of the land. So before you get too exercised about the professor from Auburn U., it's worth remembering that if he's a sellout for scrubbing "Huck Finn" clean, he's got plenty of company.  

-- Patrick Goldstein 

Here's a bit of vintage artistic compromise in action:

Photo: Mark Twain in his later years, looking resplendent in a white suit.

Credit: Associated Press/The Mark Twain House & Museum