Monday, January 10, 2011

Is Mark Twain Rolling Over in His Grave?

Political Cartoon by Nate Beeler, Washington Examiner

There are no less than 454 news stories for today alone on the intended release of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in a new edition in which the words “nigger,” "Injun," and "half-breed" are replaced with the more politically correct "slave," "Indian," and "half-blood."  NewSouth Books, an Alabama Publisher, has drawn criticism from many fronts and has opened up debate that is ongoing and passionate.

Is this rewriting history, taking a revisionist approach, or is it making a great piece of American literature accessible to students who would otherwise not be able to study this book because schools are reluctant to use it?

The Rhode Show (Fox Providence) has done an excellent job of outlining what the buzz is all about.

One thing that all sides seem to agree on is that the word "nigger" makes us uncomfortable.  Some scholars defend Twain's language, believing that his readers should feel uncomfortable since it shines a light on the historic treatment of blacks.  People differ on whether the word should be used if it is within its historical context or whether it should be removed to soothe modern sensibilities.  Professor Alan Gribben, a Twain scholar and editor of the NewSouth edition believes he is helping schools to be able to get this classic book back into the curriculum.   According to Publishers WeeklyTwain himself defined a classic as "a book which people praise and don't read."  Gribben believes that the offensive "n-word" is causing a generation of school children to be deprived of this important American book and that the sanitized edition would make it easier for parents and teachers to accept.

However Twain was angry even when changes in punctuation were made by an editor.  Below is the forward from the original Huckleberry Finn. 

IN this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary ‘Pike County’ dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a hap- hazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech. I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.
                                                                         -- THE AUTHOR.
I can't help but think Twain is either rolling over in his grave or sitting back and enjoying the furor.  This is a debate that will continue to rage, as long as people are uncomfortable with the language but I can 't help thinking that the problem lies, not in the word itself -- for it is used in many other settings -- but in how schools, teachers, and parents sidestep the real issue -- the harsh reality of the slave trade and its role in America's history.

In the meantime, the double volume with both Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer is schedule to be released in February.

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