Wednesday, January 05, 2011

By request…my thoughts on re-writing Twain…

A certain Robert from Seattle asked this bitch for my thoughts on news that a publisher intends to replace language in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.

Pause…sip coffee…continue.

Confession – I haven’t read Huckleberry Finn in years.  Not since grade school, I think.

But I’d be fired up and ready to rumble if someone attempted to censor To Kill a Mockingbird just because they assume young people might get upset over language used in that book!


Anyhoo, I disagree with the decision to replace language in the book.

And I also disagree with some school districts’ decision to not offer Huckleberry Finn to students because it contains the “n” word.

Twain’s use of that word offers an opportunity to discuss it, why many find it offensive and to ponder why and how Twain used it.  There is also an opportunity to explore the historical time in which Huckleberry Finn is set…what society was like in Missouri and what America was going through.

This planned censorship is disturbing for many reasons.  My first thought was that the publisher was re-writing Twain based on the false assumption that only children read Huckleberry Finn.  Further pondering made me reject the idea of re-writing Huckleberry Finn even if children are the only people reading it.

Literature allows for the exploration of the good, the bad and the ugly that is all around us and can be a useful tool for stimulating classroom discussions that help young people understand the good, the bad and the ugly.

Don’t get me wrong – I understand the concern over introducing young people to certain language.  I recall an incident from my childhood that involved my class reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin and my fellow students giving me, one of the few black students, absolute hell and using language from the book to mock and tease me.

But that shit had more to do with my teacher failing to put a damn thing about that book into context…and one of my fellow students being a rancid little bigot. 

I say leave Huckleberry Finn alone and offer more useful study guides for teachers, parents and students instead!

Thanks for asking.


Colonel de Guerlass said...

I am very surprized American children are supposed to learn (or not) racist/obscene words at schools. In France, little children could teach racist/obscene words to their teachers....

Colonel de Guerlass said...

I am very surprised American little children might learn racist/obscene words at schools... That make a difference with french little children, who might teach racist/obscene words to their teachers...

And I want to congratulate you and thank you for what you write on your blog : a friend of mine found it very good, too..
And I wish you a very happy new year, with succcess and health..

Joanna said...

I remember reading Huckleberry Finn in 3rd grade, in our gifted program class. I believe the other students read the book in Junior High or High school. But, I believe this book was my first real introduction to the N-word (this was in the days before music was filled with that type of language) and I remember having, even at that young age, a conversation about the word and what is represents.

My parents never used the N-word in our home, and where I grew up, there was kind of this unspoken assumption that you could not possibly be a racist as long as you avoided that sort of language!

I think that it is important to introduce this material to children when they are able to have conversations about race on a more mature basis. We covered it early in our "gifted" program, but I cannot possibly imagine the third graders in my regular class being able to have the necessary conversation. But, by 7th or 8th grade,I think the book can be a good teaching tool.

Joanna said...


J said...

I kind of compare this form of censorship to denial. If you cannot see it or hear it, it doesn't affect you or it never happened. A way to sugar coat the shit.

That is not what our children need to be taught (or not taught). History will repeat itself through ignorance.

...and I can, with certainty, say that every one of these kids has, at some point, heard the "n" word. Through friends, movies or music...

Of course, they could mention that Mark Twain wrote letters to universities explaining why he was fully funding the higher educations of more than one black student. He was not racist...

The Bear Maiden said...

My 16YO niece is writing an essay in favor of censoring the book as a debate... she has read the book and is NOT in favor of censoring it. But apparently, in writing the reverse argument it shows she really understands what Huck Finn was about.

First off... Huckleberry Finn is NOT a children's book, though the language is simple and it's about kids. I read it when I was 10 while being homeschooled; my father made me write a report on it.

I think I've read the book once or twice since then... but no matter. It is extremely powerful in it's simplicity but the ideas in it are very complex. And if you really READ the damn book, from beginning to end, you understand the context in which the word "nigger" is used. And how Huck struggled with what he was taught about niggers and hell and Christianity, and what he ultimately came to believe about niggers and hell and Christianity.

It would really be a shame if they rewrote the book. First off, it sets a very scary precedent... that an authors work can be altered. As the daughter of an (brown American) author and an unpublished one herself that's just about the worst sin ever. Words in an author's work (well, good authors, anyway) are there for a reason. To make you think. To make you feel. To draw pictures in your head.

The mere thought of altering an artists work because it contains "offensive" words shows just how stupid our society has become. And scares the shit out of me.

Anonymous said...

Twain should not be messed with. It is the best example of someone shedding light on what was and questioning it himself. People who want to change or ignore him, seem to not know where he was coming from with his writing. Folks should investigate more. There are incredible lessons in his work. That's what makes it so great.

Esteleth said...

I read Huckleberry Finn years ago, then re-read it a few months ago (not long after parents in the school district I live in got all pissy over it being assigned).
As I read it, I looked for when Twain uses the n-word. I had to look hard.
The most notable sequence is one where Huck uses it in a letter (to the woman who had kept Jim in slavery). Huck, after writing the letter, re-reads it and then rips it up in disgust at himself.
This is bracketed by a lengthy sequence detailing how Jim became a friend and father figure to Huck.
That is, the letter -and Huck's destruction of it - is about Huck realizing that he cares for and respects Jim. Redacting the language lessens - in my opinion - the "oomph" value of Huck, a racist kid, coming to see a black man as a person, a friend, and a father figure.
To say that I am disgusted is an understatement.

Peregrin said...

If the use of that word is the worst thing anyone can think of from Huck Finn, then it's obvious that they haven't read the book at all.

Which brings up another point. Where do you stop such censorship? Would the "Emperor's" burlesque show even appear in the "rewrite?"

And then one has to question the motivation of such revision. Does the editor romanticize the antebellum days? If you remove all bits of racism from that book, then you end up taking away the major point of the whole thing.

Just as you pointed out - like Mockingbird.

Some stories center around sensitive topics. Some include them gratuitously. But all of these deserve protection, for all of them reflect the times that they come from. History is...kinda important.

Anonymous said...

From what I gather in the article, the editor Dr. Gribben is arguing that by censoring the text of offensive words/material, he can prevent the censoring of the book in school classrooms. If that were followed over into other banned/challenged books in school classrooms, would there be any real, actual literature left to teach?


ttv said...

For me, it's cool.

pluky said...

I can't remember exactly how old I was when I first read the book (probably 8 or 9), but I vividly remember coming across 'the word' in the text. Despite never having seen it before, I most certainly had heard it before, hell I'd been called it before, and knew it wasn't a 'nice word.' But you know what? I kept reading, paying more attention than I had to any book up to that point.

I knew nothing of Twain, history, Missouri, literary criticism, at that point in my life. But the power of a word, chosen by craft and placed by art, sufficed to engage my mind.

To alter art is to debase it.

Mary said...

I wonder if ABB can post some thoughts on the hijacking of MLK Day by corporate crazies who have neutered the whole idea of the memory of Dr. King's legacy.
As boomers age I see an unopposed onslaught against all the civil rights movement stood for.
I am white but == sheesh == !!!!
Kids in school are 'instructed' to make MLK day some kind of community Valentines Day - sans history, sans white suppemacy, sans history.
It is a scrubbing in progress.
Driving me nuts.
Ask any teacher about this.

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