Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

A blog about words, wordplay, and etymology, with slightly more than occasional political rants.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Born to Trouble

The Internet's all atwitter these days with tales of a new censored version of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in which the 220 or so instances of the "n" word have been replaced with slave. Something about censorship or destroying the classics or something.
I know I'm supposed to have a strong opinion about this, but as it turns out, I'm strongly ambivalent. 
Huck Finn is one of the best American novels ever written, one of the best that ever will be written. Every page of Twain's masterpiece drips with anti-slavery sentiment, from the obvious to the thing that's one of my favorite parables of all time:
Okay, so my favorite scene in Huck Finn, because symbolism usually sails straight over my head, and I got this one all by my lonesome:
Jim's been captured by some farmers who are going to return him to the people who had him in slavery. They've got him chained up in a barn somewhere, and Huck wants to go in and save him. Huck runs into his friend Tom Sawyer, who say's he'll help. Huck's plan is to go into the barn and get Jim out, but Tom doesn't think that plan is flashy enough. He wants something big, something clever, and something that will raise a lot of feathers. And this whole insane scheme is going on, antics and hi jinks and stuff, Jim's life and freedom are in serious jeopardy. Tom and Huck are playing games with Jim's existence. 
How many freaking Tom Sawyers do you know? People who see the answers to social ills and instead of getting dirty and addressing them, want to come up with plans and schemes and Social Welfare Programs? Sure, there's something to be said for not going into a situation half-cocked, but Twain seems to me to be saying that there are some things that are just so wrong that they have to be fixed here and now and by whatever means necessary. Maybe he's just saying to screw the politics and all of that and just go get the slaves and help them get free because precious lives are being destroyed by the moment and we don't have time to play games.
Like it or not, the "n" word is part of what makes the book and the message strong. The visceral feeling you get every time you hear or read the word, that's how you're supposed to feel. You're supposed to feel the injustice of Jim's plight every time you run across the word. Or that's how I see it anyway. Maybe Twain was even thinking of the "n" word in the literal sense - the one that means "ignorant person," and juxtaposing that word with the reader's dawning realization that Jim isn't remotely ignorant or stupid. In the end, the book is intended to make a strong and in-your-face statement about oppression, and it does, and taking out the "n" words waters down one of the most effectively-worded arguments against injustice in American fiction.
Then again, there are still scenes in Schindler's List I'm not gonna watch. There are pages in Beloved I'm going to flip past. And that curb-stomping scene in American History X upsets me so much I'll never watch the movie again. Maybe if I want the option of reading the book without the words that hurt, whether they're meant to or not, maybe that's fair.
BUT, you know, it's only a matter of time before people start pressuring schools to use the sanitized version in place of the real one, and man, the greatest disservice you can do to kids is gloss over the atrocities of the past. Yep, that book upsets the hell out of kids and it always will. It should.

And something else that's been sanitized for your protection:


Anonymous said...

If nothing else it's also insulting to history, the book as it was written was written that way on purpose (which I get is partly your point) and Mark Twain would be appalled to find out that we've watered down part of his work because we're worried about offending someone. It's a book I'll be certain my children read in it's original form, just like my kids will be watching Schindler's list when they're old enough to handle it. Comes back to one of my favorite quotes (and I always get the wording wrong) "Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it". We need to know and understand these things to not repeat the mistakes our ancestors (even grandparents) made.

VEG said...

I remember a few years ago joking with someone that soon classic works of any creative sort would be sanitized for our protection, what with the incessant "warnings" before just about every TV show around, regardless of content. Just who are these viewers who're so sheltered they need to use discretion before viewing anything? It's ridiculous. Censoring books that are established classics is so silly it's funny. It's even more ludicrous than the time they used CGI to get rid of the guns the officials carried in "E.T." because they didn't think it appropriate. I'm perfectly capable of deciding on my own about appropriateness, I don't appreciate censorship.

Brigid Daull Brockway said...

I had forgotten that about ET. How absurd! I'm driven crazy by the fact that Netflix, Blockbuster, and Wal-Mart sanitize movies for our protection. When do libraries start doing the same?