Tuesday, January 4, 2011

What The Huck?


Normally I don’t feel the urge to lynch anybody, but right now I’d like some rope, if you have any handy. I saw reports on Twitter that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is being sanitized. I checked some headlines. It’s true. A new edition is coming out that’s taking out two terms: “Nigger” and “Injun” (See NPR or CNN's report).

If you have ever read Huckleberry Finn, you know this is not a minor adjustment. Mark Twain sprinkles the words in his novel the way my father sprinkles salt and pepper on steak and potatoes. That means a lot. Altering the text that much will have consequences. One of them is, as the links above mention, that more schools might let kids read the book. According to the links above, it’s grade-schoolers that the editors have specifically in mind.

This isn’t the first time people have tried to do this to Huckleberry Finn. Nevertheless, here comes the rant. I’m not buying it, and this is why.

First off, the action itself says something that I don’t like. These fellows are changing the words of a document from another age, and fixing it to fit the beliefs of this age. The implication is that it is only the beliefs of our age that are important, and that all that has come before can be destroyed and forgotten. I denounce that. Utterly. I am not saying that what was believed in the past is necessary “just as true”. That is moral relativism, which I also denounce.

What I am saying is that it is vitally important for the truth to stand. If it was common in the 1800s to call a black person a nigger, then that’s a clue to understanding that century. We cannot take that term out of 1800s documents. The people in the 1800s did some things wrong, and some things right. So do we. We have enough trouble deciding who got what right without changing up the words that the people in the 1800s wrote. It’s part of the conversation we have with the rest of humanity, trying to piece together what has happened- and what it means for us, here and now.

Now, obviously this isn’t happening to all copies of Huckleberry Finn; just this special edition. Regardless, I scorn the message implicit in their actions. Do you think you can separate an action from what it says?

Now the grade school thing is kind, and well-meaning. But it’s not enough to justify my problem above, and I’m not sure I buy it itself. If you won’t have your 8th graders reading books with controversial words, wait until you think they’re old to handle it. One of the three high schools I attended didn’t mandate Huckleberry Finn until junior year. I was there junior year. The discussions I had with my classmates were great. There are things going on in that book that grade-schoolers will have trouble getting at. And don’t even get me started with the dialogue.

That doesn’t mean they can’t try. But how can one justify letting them grapple with deep literary devices and metaphors, and not let them grapple with the historical context of “nigger”? In fact, showing it to them in Huckleberry Finn may be healthy. I think it’s fair to say that many schools have a swearing problem. I don’t have statistics or first-hand knowledge of grade schools, but I’ve seen plenty of high-schoolers, public and private who use a host of foul words and I don’t think it happened overnight. Where are our kids going to hear this word? In a book with historical context and discussion, or laughing with their schoolmates (or listening to a Lil Wayne rap)?


  1. I agree. I read Kipling's Just-So Stories to my kids, and they've censored "How the Leopard Got His Spots" by taking out the word "nigger". OK, so Kipling isn't PC, but I'm not convinced it's up to us to change what they wrote. Why don't we discuss it instead? Goodness, the Canterbury Tales and Shakespeare aren't PC, either, but I've not seen people changing those (maybe they have and I just haven't seen it - I don't want to see that).

    BTW, I see you're at Benedictine - I have a cousin going there. :-)

  2. Small world, isn't it? It's a good school. Thanks for reading my post.

    I'm with you a 100%, especially about Shakespeare. If I remember correctly, Othello's first scene involves someone compared Othello, a black man to horse, and making a coarse sex joke about that comparison. And Merchant of Venice is famous for its racial issues, particularly the cruelty towards Shylock the Jew.

    Has anybody tried censoring Shakespeare that you know of? I almost guarantee someone's abridged it.

  3. Indeed it is a small world.

    I'm sure there are abridged versions of his plays, and the dreaded modern language versions. I'll have to get out some Shakespeare again - I've not read him in a while.

  4. Neither have I. You can read modern-language and actual Shakespeare without paying a dime, thanks to SparkNotes. They have a side-by-side comparison of the two on their site. "No Fear Shakespeare". How catchy.