Sticking A Shiv In Mark Twain

I ran across a story yesterday about NewSouth, Inc’s intent to publish an expurgated version of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in which the n-word has been replaced. At first I assumed this to be some sort of fringe, crackpot effort. Upon reading further, however, I realized that a lot of thought had gone into the decision, and that the people behind the effort seemed sincere. That their objectives are misguided and ultimately untenable in light of their own stated beliefs only makes the decision to go ahead with the project that much more confusing and disappointing.

Before I question the individual and collective rationales that have led what appear to be otherwise decent people to the precipice of insanity, I want to make a larger point. Anyone over the age of twenty knows that you do not alter an author’s text to fit your world view. No matter how personally offensive you find an author’s words, no matter how society may have changed since a text was written, no matter how difficult open discussion of an author’s work might be, you do not, ever — ever — change an author’s text to make your life easier or better. You can write your own book, you can write volumes of criticism about the original text, but you’re not allowed to rewrite history for your own ends.

Everybody knows this, and until now I assumed that literary scholars and publishers understood the reasoning behind this prohibition better than most. That the initiator of this particular act of literary barbarism is Twain scholar Alan Gribben, a long-time English professor and head of the English Department at Auburn University at Montgomery, is almost mind-boggling. The publishers aiding and abetting Professor Gribben at NewSouth are Randall Williams and Suzanne La Rosa.

Anticipating pushback against his bastard child, Professor Gribben has already gone on a name-calling offensive:

Gribben has no illusions about the new edition’s potential for controversy. “I’m hoping that people will welcome this new option, but I suspect that textual purists will be horrified,” he said.

If you’re not familiar with the hallowed halls of academia, this is the kind of thing that professors say when they they’re trying to protect shaky intellectual turf. Accusing people of textual purism is a transparent preemptive attempt to demonize those who object to Professor Gribben’s literary crime. It also conveniently ignores the fact that intentionally changing words in order to make a work more appealing or salable has nothing to do with textual purism. What Professor Gribben is doing is not disputing or advocating for a version of Huckleberry Finn, but actively rewriting Mark Twain in a demented attempt to save Twain from himself.

That NewSouth has decided to publish Professor Gribben’s version of history is perhaps understandable from a business perspective, but disappointing in terms of the cultural stewardship we hope all publishers embrace. Again, no dissection of the publisher’s motives need be undertaken in order to understand how flawed this decision is and how completely it undercuts the foundations of authorship, history and culture. Any publisher’s attempt to alter an author’s words is a violation not just of that author’s work, but of every author’s work, and anyone who proposes going down that road for any reason — and I mean any reason — by definition lacks the necessary steel to assess, edit or publish literature.  

NewSouth and the Business Angle
However negligent, NewSouth’s decision to publish a surgically altered version of Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not necessarily sinister. It might be as well-intentioned as it is completely detestable. As I’ve noted previously, human beings have a tendency to attribute events to a single cause, rather than allowing for ambiguity or the possibility that multiple factors can lead to a particular choice or outcome.

Whatever public statements NewSouth has made about its motivation for publishing a violated version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it’s hard for me to imagine that doing so is a selfless act. I’m not suggesting that good deeds can only be done at a loss, but over the years I’ve noticed that the ability to make a buck has a funny way of nurturing and validating ideas that good people might otherwise reject. In this instance I see four ways in which NewSouth profits from hacking into The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn like a butcher lopping off a bit fat in order to better sell a juicy steak:

  • Publicity
    Given the cultural history of the work, and the explosive social impact of the n-word, this publishing decision is certain to gain notice, if not notoriety. Assuming that any publicity is good publicity, and given that Mark Twain is dead and can’t sue, I’m not sure there’s a financial downside here. With a well-timed press offensive, NewSouth might even be able to corner the market in works written by other revisionists, such as Holocaust deniers.
  • Cultural Sensitivity
    Nothing sells like deep concern for children. Attempting to shield children from the n-word while showering them with all of Mark Twain’s inoffensive words seems like a loving thing to do. If it’s for the kids, how can that be wrong? I mean, outside of all the ugly lessons that revising a work of art will be teaching those same students.
  • Timing
    NewSouth is “committed to a short turnaround, looking to get the finished product on shelves by February.” Could that have anything to do with increased interest in Twain resulting from publication of his autobiography late last year? Is the market demand for customized versions of classic stories suddenly exploding? And if so, why not start with a version of Huckleberry Finn that includes vampires? Or Snooki?
  • Money
    The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is taught at colleges and high schools across the country. As such, it ships a lot of copies. That NewSouth has decided to expunge Mark Twain’s cultural obscenities in such a popular title fits the very definition of savvy marketing because of that perennial niche.

Allowing for Delusion
It’s possible for well-meaning people to do the wrong thing. Some issues — like this one — seem complex when they really aren’t. In trying to sort out the logical arguments it’s possible for good people to lose sight of the forest for the emotional and economic trees. That’s not an excuse for the solution that’s being proposed here, but it’s a reason, and one I believe I can make the case for using the principals’ own words.

Consider this from the About page on NewSouth’s web site:

“We gravitate to material which enhances our undertanding [sic] of who we are and which asks us to stretch in our understanding of others,” says La Rosa. “Our publishing program is defined by its strong cultural component.” Williams adds that the house’s titles are not exclusively Southern, but that its program specializes in books on Southern history and culture, “especially those which examine the role of individuals in creating or contending with the change and conflict which came to the region in the post-World War II era. We believe strongly in the transformative power of information and knowledge, and we hope that the books we publish offer collective insight that helps the region grow toward ‘the beloved community’ and the fulfillment of the democratic promise.”

It’s always possible to read such promotional copy as self-serving, but I tend to think La Rosa and Williams are sincere. But that only makes it more unbelievable that people so committed to “the transformative power of information and knowledge” have decided that one of the things they need to transform is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

I don’t believe any argument can be made that Huckleberry Finn needs fixing. It’s not broken or in need of repair. It is a completed work of fiction, and as such needs no rewriting by Professor Gribben. But Huckleberry Finn is also something else: a historical work — and it’s that aspect of the book that NewSouth and Professor Gribben are trying to come to terms with by rewriting the contents. In doing so they are ironically embracing the “the transformative power of information and knowledge” by transforming the very work they profess to revere.

NewSouth and Professor Gribben are producing a bastardized version of Twain’s book not because there’s something wrong with the book, but because the contents of the book prove problematic when the text is digested in modern classrooms. If anything, this motivation is worse than political censorship or any crass desire to make a buck. I say worse because no argument can be made that the teaching of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is critical to a basic education, or even to a basic education in American Literature. For every pro-Huckleberry argument put forward, other books which are less offensive to current social sensibilities can be substituted which allow students to practice critical analysis and gain an appreciation for literature in general or Twain in particular.

The teaching of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not required by law. It may be a tradition, and a historically important tradition, but it is still done by choice. If the social context of the times has evolved to the point that the contents of Huckleberry Finn are simply too confrontational or distracting for students to comfortably digest, then the obvious solution is not to stick a shiv in Mark Twain and make the bastard pay, but rather to revisit when and why The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn should be taught.

NewSouth and Academic Myopia
In the United States we’ve had a long, long conversation about the use of the n-word. In my lifetime I’ve gone from hearing it infrequently from ignorant, racist, white Midwestern schoolmates, to hearing it routinely from redneck characters in redneck movies, as well as uniquely in Brian’s Song, to hearing it more frequently from African-American comedians and pop-rap stars, to hearing it almost not at all today.

At each stage in this cultural conversation the outcome has been the same: nothing good comes from everyday use of the n-word, no matter who’s using it. Nothing. While there is not and should not be a law preventing use of the n-word, the closest analogy I can think of to its place in modern American society is the swastika in Germany — which is outlawed by law.

That’s where we are right now: we agree there is no benefit to this word. Yet we also agree that Mark Twain is an important writer, and that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an important book, and that because the book-banning morons of the world are always going after that particular title we need to stand against attempts at censorship by insisting that students study a book that contains a word that will short their brains out for reasons that we all agree are completely valid. In every other instance we ask and expect our friends and peers and children to be aware of and respectful of the deep emotional force behind the n-word, but when it appears in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn we expect those same people to appraise the word with cool detachment.

Add to the mix the fact that high school and college students are often predisposed to bipolar bouts of philosophical extremism and crushing personal uncertainty, and the practical reality is that this detachment will be impossible for many students to attain. Readers that are freaked out about their brains and their bodies and their social status are going to have a hard time trying to ignore a hot-button word that they’ve been taught to despise, and all the more so when it’s presented in a historical text that has no immediate relevance to their lives.

Because there’s a long tradition of teaching The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, however, and because the teachers of today were part of that long tradition, and because nobody wants to admit that maybe the time for that tradition has passed, people who are heavily invested in that tradition keep advocating for its continuance — even to the point of gutting the original work. Why? Because doing anything else would involve asking a very tough question.

Huckleberry Finn was an important part of our cultural Civil Rights conversation for many generations. It connected modern Americans who read the text to the legacy of slavery and racism that existed and still exists in our country. Confronting the n-word in schools was important, which was why the book-banning morons wanted it banned. But that social conversation is now over. Racism still exists, but questions about the n-word have been asked and answered, and Huckleberry Finn and the people who taught that book — including Professor Gribben — were a critical part of that conversation.

Today there is almost nothing inherent in studying The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a text that cannot be replicated by other means. It’s not critical to understanding race, slavery, literature, academic criticism or any other basic building block of a liberal arts education. For that reason, and in combination with the fact that the n-word is social anathema, a new and tough question needs to be asked. In what ways might the teaching of Huckleberry Finn now be inappropriate for, or punitively distracting to, modern students and their educational goals?

If people want to specifically study Twain’s works, yes, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn should be included. If people want to study how literature impacted Civil Rights in America, yes, it should be included. If a professor wants to offer a course on Books That Changed America, yes, it should be included. Huckleberry Finn’s service to more generic educational goals, however, may indeed be compromised by its social relevance, and pretending otherwise is naive. More to the point, given that the collective social conversation about the n-word has essentially been resolved, teaching the book in that context has no application. It may even be possible that doing so makes it more difficult for some people to treat others in a colorblind way, or for people to be comfortable about their own color in and outside of a classroom.

Now sixty-nine years old, Professor Gribben appears to have devoted much of his life to the teaching of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It’s understandable from an emotional perspective that he would not want the book to lose its standing in academia. His own acknowledged interest in rewriting Twain is to keep the book alive despite changes in the cultural context:

“After a number of talks, I was sought out by local teachers, and to a person they said we would love to teach this novel, and Huckleberry Finn, but we feel we can’t do it anymore. In the new classroom, it’s really not acceptable.” Gribben became determined to offer an alternative for grade school classrooms and “general readers” that would allow them to appreciate and enjoy all the book has to offer. “For a single word to form a barrier, it seems such an unnecessary state of affairs,” he said.

Rather than see his life’s work as the culmination of a moment in which we all (or almost all) agree that the n-word has no place in society, and rather than exult in the fact that Twain was successful at goading us to have this conversation for so many years, Professor Gribben has convinced himself that his beloved book can still be taught if only it is rewritten for the modern reader. It’s not the work itself that matters, but the fact that it must continue to be taught — even if it has to be debased, gutted or neutered along the way.

It is in this sense that I also believe NewSouth has failed. As I said above, you don’t need to know anything except that the text of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is being altered to know that it’s wrong. The act is proof of the crime.

What NewSouth should be doing, if it believes that cultural norms are at legitimate odds with the teaching of Huckleberry Finn, is make a version of the book available which includes an introduction by Professor Gribben discussing and explaining and teaching the reader about the work in the context of this social moment. Better yet, throw in a link to Professor Gribben giving an online lecture on the subject.

That’s what somebody who loves Mark Twain and loves The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would do. Despite NewSouth’s claims to the contrary, what they’ve said in announcing the publication of this sterilized version is that the teaching of Mark Twain is more important than what Mark Twain wrote. It’s more important to perpetuate the tradition of teaching Huckleberry Finn than it is to preserve Huckleberry Finn or to make sure that people who read Mark Twain read the words that came from his hand.

NewSouth, Professor Gribben and Education
Anyone making the argument that only politically correct texts should be taught to students — and particularly college students — has so completely lost sight of what the word integrity means as to have disqualified themselves from teaching anything to anyone. Not only do I not want students or anyone else to be given dumbed-down works, I don’t want teachers setting an example by revising works for students.

A real teacher — and I come from a long line of teachers — would never do this. A real teacher — meaning someone who wanted to teach others how to think, rather than to recite dogma — would never do this. A real teacher — meaning someone who recognized that the integrity of the source material was as critical as the lesson — would never do this. A real teacher — meaning someone who wanted the best for their students, rather than cheap affirmation of what they themselves spent their life obsessing over — would never do this. A real teacher would never, ever teach students that the popularity of a work of art is more important than the integrity of the work or the artist’s intent — if it can ever be known. A real teacher would never tell students that if something rubs them the wrong way they have the right to excise the bad stuff and keep what they like. That’s the province of marketing weasels, not scholars.

Let me repeat that: nobody who loved Mark Twain as a writer would ever, ever suggest changing a word of Huckleberry Finn to make it more palatable to an audience. Only someone lost in romantic nostalgia about teaching or in the meaning of their own life’s work could possibly suggest that Twain’s writing be changed in order to make it more likely to be read.

If Huckleberry Finn is age-inappropriate or class-inappropriate in some instances then it’s no different from thousands of other literary works. There’s no shame in that, and no implication of censorship. The onus is on teachers to make these judgments and act accordingly, not to rewrite texts to evade such limitations.

Removing the n-word from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not an act of bravery. I encourage Professor Gribben and NewSouth to revisit their tortured rationale for birthing this abomination. There is no place for this work. There is no justification for this work. There is no excuse for this work


This is a reprint from Mark Barrett‘s Ditchwalk.

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