Poor Huck Finn, censored yet again

The sensitive may wish to avert their eyes: 

“It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger; but I done it, and I warn’t ever sorry for it afterwards, neither. I didn’t do him no more mean tricks, and I wouldn’t done that one if I’d a knowed it would make him feel that way.” — Mark Twain in “Huck Finn”

Some idiot is changing Mark Twain’s great book, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” to make it more palatable to the kiddies by taking out that word.

You know: THAT word. The N-word. Rhymes with bigger? It’s in the quote. Yeah, that one.

Yeah, sure, it gives people the willies. My boss wouldn’t let me use it in a column in the paper on the book last year. I was writing that column because Weber Reads was using Huck Finn as one of its two books for community discussion.

Look at that quote– Huck is humbling himself to Jim after playing a dirty trick on him. He has learned and realized that Jim is a human worth of consideration, not just some sub-human object. He realizes that black people have feelings!

Would substituting the word “slave” in that quote give that quote, that moment, that amazing realization by Huck, the same power it has? Does the word “slave” carry the same cultural and societal weight that the quote has as it stands?

No. Not even close. Blacks — not just slaves, but black people in general — were regarded as sub-human in the time period Huck Finn takes place. That’s why Twain wrote the language, and that word, the way he did. Jim is the only person in that whole book worthy of respect, and in this paragraph Twain shows us why.

That single word was good for a lot of Weber Reads discussion — we held several very informative and lively meetings. Feelings were all over the place about that word. Some were high offended, some felt the word has great power, some felt keeping it hidden gives it more power, and on and on.

Which is precisely why it shouldn’t be removed.

I heard the guy doing this being interviewed on NPR today — he says he wants the book to be more acceptable, without controversy. He said Twain “belongs to us all” and so can be changed. He says Twain revised his own autobiography so why can’t we change Huck, ignoring the fact that Twain never finished his autobiography so he had every right to change it, but he did finish Huck Finn, and when a book is finished, it is done, you don’t mess with it.

Ray Bradbury, who wrote “Fahrenheit 451″ and “the Martian Chronicles” and many others, predicted all this. It is very scary how clearly Ray saw the future. It is tempting to give him a call and ask him to pick the stock market for me, so clearly can he see the future.

In a new afterward — or forward, I forget which — to “Fahrenheit 451″ (click here) he says that he is contacted often by people who think he ought to re-think some of what he wrote in his earlier books, to make his works more acceptable today. Did his portrayal of blacks in “Martian Chronicles” really have to be quote so stereotypical? Could he give women better roles?

As he says:

 There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist / Unitarian, Irish / Italian / Octogenarian / Zen Buddhist, Zionist/Seventh-day Adventist, Women’s Lib/Republican, Mattachine/FourSquareGospel feel it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blanc-mange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme.

I dare not claim to say it better than Ray. The jerk going after Mark Twain with his censorous axe, afraid some little darling will see a bad word and have to deal with the real world, deserves to be dramatically and vigorously ignored by one and all, however.

Give Ray the final word: 

     For it is a mad world and it will get madder if we allow the minorities, be they dwarf or giant, orangutan or dolphin, nuclear-head or water-conversationalist, pro-computerologist or Neo-Luddite, simpleton or sage, to interfere with aesthetics. The real world is the playing ground for each and every group, to make or unmake laws. But the tip of the nose of my book or stories or poems is where their rights and my territorial imperatives begin, run and rule. If Mormons do not like my plays, let them write their own. If the Irish hate my Dublin stories, let them rent typewriters. If teachers and grammar school editors find my jawbreaker sentences shatter their mushmild teeth, let them eat stale cake dunked in weak tea of their own ungodly manufacture. If the Chicano intellectuals wish to re-cut my “Wonderful Ice Cream Suit” so it shapes “Zoot,” may the belt unravel and the pants fall.

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8 Responses to Poor Huck Finn, censored yet again

  1. Doug Gibson says:

    Excellent points, Charlie. It’s quite ironic that the new publishers are censoring descriptions of, as you mention, a character who teaches Huck positive principles. But, also, it’s literature damn it, and you don’t change great works. Reminds me of the infamous movie credit … “By William Shakespeare, with additional dialogue by Sam Taylor.”

  2. Neal Humphrey says:

    Some stupid ideas are remarkably durable. The technical term for what NewSouth Books has done is “bowdlerize,” editing to the taste of overly sensitive audiences. Thomas Bowdler tried this stunt with Shakespeare and his name is now a verb for the pernicious practice.

    In “Green Hills of Africa” Ernest Hemingway offers his opinion of Huckleberry Finn: “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ … it’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that.”

    Leave it alone!

  3. Bob Becker says:

    There’s another reason I think to keep the word in Huck Finn just as MT wrote it. Over the years, down on the bayou, I occasionally heard black students, agitated about something or other on campus [sometimes with good reason, sometimes not] shouting at bull-horn volume that “things are worse now than they were before Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks” or that “nothing’s changed since Ross Barnett and George Wallace.” And many cheered.

    Removing from the literature the way ordinary people actually spoke in the past perpetuates such silliness. Young people can lose sight of the fact that there was a time in the US, a time in living memory, when ordinary folk in large areas of the US used “nigger” casually, frequently and without a second thought. When I first moved to the south [circa 1970], one of my neighbors, just casually mentioned one day that “the nigger’s come to mow the law tomorrow.” Shocked this New Yorker. And I learned something worth learning about what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil.”

    When we sanitize American history [and lit], young people can [and often do I'm afraid] lose any sense of what it was like “back then” and so lose any grasp on how much progress we have made since “back then.” Even adults forget, if they ever had any real understanding of, what it was like.

    I used to sometimes play excerpts from the excellent documentary “Eyes on the Prize” for adult library discussion groups. And one clip in particular about the freedom riders, and when the audience saw — and heard — the thud of lead pipes hitting the heads of people stepping off the bus in Birmingham into a raging racist mob while the police watched smiling on the sidelines, it got very very quiet. And stayed that way for moments after I stopped the clip. Ditto clips of adult mobs in New Orleans screaming “nigger!” at a handful of elementary school children being escorted into what had been all-white schools.

    Books written in other times using the common tongue of the day are one way to keep an understanding of the way things were alive in new generations of young people. Yes, coming across casual use of “nigger” in Huck Finn will shock them.

    It should. And it’s good that it does. And it would be wrong to sanitize the book, for that sanitizes the history as well.

  4. Dave Thomas says:

    I am a retired elementary school teacher. While I was still teaching, I had the opportunity three times to teach The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to advanced readers in the fourth and fifth grades. Not Huckleberry, which I feel is not a book for elementary school because of the child abuse Pap puts Huck through. But Tom Sawyer has the same n-word in it.

    In each of those three groups there were some African-American students.

    Before embarking on the book, I would hold a meeting with the class and talk about that word. I would tell them how that word was historical, that it was the way people in the South talked in those days. I would tell them how the books, by treating slavery with dutiful respect, opened the eyes of people in the North and many in the South to what the realities of slavery were, and how they contributed to the Abolitionist movement and the eventual end of slavery.

    I would tell them that just because the word was in a book we were to read, it was not a word that they could use on the playground, in the lunchroom, in the restrooms, or anywhere else where people gathered.

    I would tell them that if it made them uncomfortable to read the word aloud, that when they came to it, they could substitute Black (which at the time was a polite word) or African-American (a term that became polite after Black became racist), but that when I read aloud from the book, I would be reading the word just as printed.

    I contacted all the parents of students with the same information, either in person, by telephone, or by note, and required a written permission slip from a parent or guardian to be in that class, with the option of transferring temporarily to another class reading a less controversial book. I made sure that I spoke in person with the parents of a the African American students.

    Nobody ever took the option of transferring to another class. Reading the book was a great learning experience. I’m proud to have taught the book.

  5. Ben Pales says:

    I convinced my 13 year old daughter this last year to read Huck Finn. She was traveling through Hannibal MO at the time, going to Quincy IL, to visit her uncle. It was great timing, not only were we right along side the Mississippi, but also I felt she was at the appropriate age to begin discussing more adult issues. We were able to discuss the way African Americans were treated during that time, compared to how we view people from other cultures now.
    I could not agree more with several of the other commentors, that if we were to censor MT we lose the most profound message that this book has for us.

  6. Stephen Cook says:

    Trying to sanitize the past by expunging out-of-vogue language does a disservice to both the past and the future.

  7. The last time you heard of me and Tom was in that book Sam Clemens wrote telling of when Jim and me flowed down the Mississippi and met up with the King and the Duke. Then Jim got captured and Tom and I had to set him free. Of course, Jim was already a freed man; Tom just neglected to mention that fact during the planning stage.

    Well, we were twelve years of age when Sam wrote about that. Now Tom and I are a mite older and a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then. One thing is that we’re a little bit smarter than we were. We’ve been reading a lot of books and our English has improved a little. But it wasn’t just books. Both Tom and I have traveled many miles, not always together, and travel broadens one’s outlook on life.

    We went from being children to men before we knew it. Tom and Becky Thatcher never got married like everyone expected. In the summer of ’54, Becky ran off with a drummer. I think he sold women’s corsets, but of that, I am not certain. We haven’t heard from her since. Judge Thatcher and Tom’s Aunt Polly both took sick and died the next year when the Cholera epidemic passed through town. Two years after that, the widow Douglas died; the doctor said it was heart failure.


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