Should Huck Finn get a 21st-century revision?

Fri, Jan 7, 2011, 00:00

The word ‘nigger’ has been replaced by ‘slave’ in one US publisher’s new versions of Mark Twain’s classic novels – but should texts really be sanitised?

SITTING AT his desk in Montgomery, Alabama, Prof Alan Gribben is weathering a storm he knew was coming. “Of course there was going to be trouble,” he says with a shrug. “You don’t change Mark Twain and not expect the walls to come crashing down.”

This week, an Alabama publishing company, NewSouth, announced it will be releasing Gribben’s altered version of Mark Twain’s classics, The Adventures of Tom Sawyerand The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which the word “nigger” is replaced with “slave”, while the word “injun” is replaced by “Indian”.

It’s the removal of the first word (used 219 times in Huckleberry Finn) that has cultural commentators frothing with outrage this week. Some have called the new version an “abstinence-only” approach to discussing racism, while others have heralded the arrival of the politically correct apocalypse, the point of no return for liberal thought police.

“Let’s get one thing straight,” says Gribben, an Aubern University professor who has been vilified by both the left and right. “Mark Twain was a notoriously commercial and populist author. If he was alive today and all he had to do was change one word to get his book into every schoolhouse in America, he couldn’t change it fast enough.” But he isn’t here and he can’t answer for himself. Maybe Twain would have screamed in indignation that his work was being robbed of its original meaning.

Gribben, a likeable straight talker, is adamant that he is not robbing Twain of anything, merely making a small change so that English teachers are no longer embarrassed to read out loud in class.

But should literature really be changed to avoid the blushes of English teachers? For a cut-and-paste digital generation, is literature just another mash-up that can be altered to suit demand? “I sincerely hope not because it would be very, very bad for American literature,” says Randall L Kennedy, who is probably the world’s greatest expert on the N word (he never uses such euphemisms), having written a widely discussed social history book called Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word.

Kennedy, an American law professor at Harvard University, is among a large group of black commentators who denounced Gribben this week.

“It’s a profoundly bad idea,” he says. “The word ‘nigger’ appears in the autobiography of Malcolm X, should that be removed as well?” But it’s not the same thing, is it? Mark Twain was white, Malcolm X was not, the context is very different.

Kennedy sighs. “No, I really don’t think so. If the word is hurtful and contemptuous, then it ought to be condemned no matter who is speaking.”

I wonder if there isn’t a certain power play going on here. A white professor wants the word removed because it makes him squirm, a black professor wants it included. Isn’t that squirming a form of social control over white people? A way of keeping them forever awkward and eager to please? “Now that’s an interesting argument,” says Kennedy.

“By removing the word from Mark Twain, we are losing the opportunity to discuss. If I was an English teacher, I would relish the opportunity to talk about my own feelings and open the discussion to the classroom. Now that’s having a real argument, that’s showing your students respect.”

I wondered what other black people thought of the N word and whether removing it from Twain would help bury a painful past or save white America from confronting its own history. I was pondering all on the subway on the way home when I heard two black teenagers talking. “Hey nigga, what’s up with you?” said one. The reply was instant “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with me nigga, something wrong with you though.”

Enter white Irish reporter with a copy of Huckleberry Finnand a massive avalanche of awkwardness. I stutter through an explanation of my article and show them a few of Mark Twain’s offending passages.

The first, 17-year-old Laurence Johnson, picks up the book, studies it for a moment and shuts it suddenly.

“So he said ‘nigger’. So what? People think slave owners called us African-Americans?” he says loudly. His friend laughs, so do some middle-aged black women sitting nearby, all of whom nod in agreement. Johnson, who is in his final year of high school in Brooklyn, puts himself in the place of a slave owner counting his slaves.

“One, two, three, four . . . damn, we got an African-American escaped up north!”

More laughter, some of the women are clapping their hands. “It’s about the timing,” says one of them, Katicha Spencer, a 42-year-old dental nurse from Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. “If some white person said that word to me, I’d be mad as hell. But if it’s from 100 years ago, and it’s someone trying to get the flavour of what people are saying, then that’s what people said. You can’t sugarcoat the past of this country, you can’t pretend it didn’t happen.” Her friends nod in agreement. “Mark Twain’s alright,” says one. “He’s not my boss.” Katicha gives her a high five and they laugh as they leave the train.

I wondered what artists who had to read racist lines thought about this type of censorship.

One who should know is Tony nominee Kelli O’Hara, star of the musical South Pacific,which is touring the US. This current controversial performance is faithful to the words of James Michener, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Tales of the South Pacificand who explored themes of racism, including a line where the heroine wonders if she can marry a man who has black children.

“Basically, any line in the original that made us shudder, we included,” says O’Hara. “If you don’t stick to the original intent of the art, then what are you doing? Serving up easy comedy while glossing over the racism of the time? Go back to the book and see what it says, see what Twain or Michener are saying about race.”

“Of course I understand those arguments,” says Suzanne La Rosa, co-founder of NewSouth, the company that is releasing the new racially sensitive Mark Twain. Prof Gribben is “a man of pure heart” who came up with a brilliant idea and NewSouth rushed to it, she says.

“I think it was about five minutes after his presentation that we went: ‘Oh my God, let’s do it. If we can get these great books to a wider audience with a gentler Twain, then the heck with it, I’ll do it’.”

La Rosa does not shy away from admitting that there are commercial concerns behind the new “gentler” Twain lite. “Of course, if we can get his book back into American schools, that would be really great for a small publishing company like ours.”

Her greatest motivation, she insists, is bringing Twain to people who would not otherwise read his work. “So we remove an offensive word that has a different context today than it did when he wrote it. The fact that we are having this debate at all shows just how explosive that word remains today.”