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January 7th, 2011


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10:43 pm - Language, Huck Finn, & Not So Timeless Classics
I've recently seen a fair amount of discussion about the edited version of Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and what surprises me is that almost every article and editorial that I've seen on this topic is against "censoring" the book by replacing the word "n*****" with the word slave for editions to be used in schools.

I'm strongly in favor of this change, for several reasons. The most obvious is simply avoiding harm – that word appears approximately 200 times – do we really need to inflict that sort of thing on teens, especially teens of color. Some words are offensive and hurtful, and this one is pretty high on that list. If we don't allow any of the infamous seven dirty words in editions of books read by public school students (a choice that seems far less defensible to me that eliminating racial slurs), then why the heck allow serious racial slurs. However, I can also see other reasons for doing so (although I think that avoiding harm is more than enough reason for this change) – the primary other one being a deliberate effort to make that word extinct. Given that it's already somewhat less acceptable than elaborate multi-word profanity in public discourse, the less people see it in print, the less it's going to be used.

Then there's the reason that changing one word in Huck Finn doesn't bother me, I don't see the change as being that big a deal – many lists of supposedly timeless classics baffle me. There are certainly books and other works that are masterfully written – Shakespeare is obviously on that list, as is T.S. Eliot, but I'm far from certain that anything by Twain belongs on that list – he's clearly quite good, but not (at least IMHO) world class. Instead, I see Adventures of Huckleberry Finn recommended more as "a timeless classic" about youth, growing up, or whatever, while also being touted as some sort of important statement about slavery and prejudice.

I don't believe in the entire concept of timeless classics. From my PoV, this novel provides an interesting window into another (deeply horrifying) age. Given that teens now grow up almost exclusively in cities & suburbs, with cars, cellphones, the internet, legal racial and sexual equality, modern medicine, television, and the many other often drastic changes since the 19th century, it's really hard for me to see how useful this book will as any sort of statement about growing up and adult choices. This is especially true because it's yet another book by a white male author with a white (often rural) male protagonist, and it's not like teens and children don't see a surfeit of these already.

The book looks even more dubious when one of the supposed reasons for reading it is to look at questions of race & racism. I'm not certain what's read in high schools & middle schools today, but it really seems that we can do a whole lot better than another white guy with a white male protagonist writing about how bad racism is. If you want to look at questions of racism in the 19th century, I'd think that some of Frederick Douglass' speeches would be substantially more useful & informative.
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(25 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


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From:slothman
Date:January 8th, 2011 07:31 am (UTC)
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I’d rather that they keep the original text and just make a point of teaching the kids what it meant then and what Twain intended when he wrote it (presuming we have any reliable information on that topic) and what it means now and how it got that way. (And I think reading Douglass’ speeches as part of establishing that context would be good.)

But I’d also not censor the seven dirty words, either; attempts to insulate children from them are silly, as they’ll just use them more gleefully amongst themselves.
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From:innocent_man
Date:January 8th, 2011 03:45 pm (UTC)
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This. And if that's not acceptable, find a different book to teach.
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From:seika
Date:January 9th, 2011 03:16 am (UTC)
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This. I simply don't think texts should be censored; they should be explained. We don't need to shield children from offensive words; we need to teach them that they're nasty.

I'm also against changing what is basically meant as a slice of history. The point of studying Huck Finn isn't learning that racism is bad so much as it is learning what life was like in those particular days for that particular group of people. Obviously there are better, and more topically modern, books to teach that racism is bad, most of them by writers of actual colour themselves.

Kids are not likely to emulate a word in use in a book when they don't hear it in modern slang, anyway. How many kids shout "I bite my thumb at thee!" after reading Shakespeare? It's the slang in things that is presented as their contemporary culture-- movies, music, and other pop media-- that influences what they're going to say. Huck Finn isn't full of "cool" people.

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From:roseembolism
Date:January 8th, 2011 07:54 am (UTC)
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I kind of agree. While I don't think that Huckleberry Finn needs to be censored, I definitely think that the publisher has the right to alter it, and support them in doing so. This is for the simple reason that the same rights that allow them to alter Huck Finn allows all other classics with expired trademarks to be adapted and altered. From a copyright perspective, there's no difference between an altered Huck Finn and "What's Opera Doc" and "Forbidden Planet".

I'm also pretty sure that there's been other versions of Hick Finn that omitted the "N" word, such as children's versions. So other than it being a slow news day, I'm not sure why this particular editing of Huck Finn is so contentious.
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From:nancylebov
Date:January 8th, 2011 03:25 pm (UTC)
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Would you consider appropriate or even important for the modified edition to have a foreword explaining that it had been changed?
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From:houseboatonstyx
Date:January 9th, 2011 12:17 am (UTC)
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I'd consider it essential! Doesn't the proposed edition already include such a preface?

Imo any edition of any book that changes or omits anything in the original, should declare the difference up front, and include links to the original.
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From:james_nicoll
Date:January 8th, 2011 05:03 pm (UTC)
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Just out of curiosity, how would you alter this rant from Huck's dad to avoid the N word but preserve the meaning?


"Oh, yes, this is a wonderful govment, wonderful. Why, looky here. There was a free nigger there from Ohio -- a mulatter, most as white as a white man. He had the whitest shirt on you ever see, too, and the shiniest hat; and there ain't a man in that town that's got as fine clothes as what he had; and he had a gold watch and chain, and a silver-headed cane -- the awfulest old gray-headed nabob in the State. And what do you think? They said he was a p'fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything. And that ain't the wust. They said he could VOTE when he was at home. Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to? It was 'lection day, and I was just about to go and vote myself if I warn't too drunk to get there; but when they told me there was a State in this country where they'd let that nigger vote, I drawed out.


Just swapping slave for nigger isn't going to do.

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From:houseboatonstyx
Date:January 9th, 2011 12:14 am (UTC)
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I think 'slave' would work there -- as even more shocking.

Everyone knows what the original word was. This small proposed edition isn't going to be taught to kids raised in bubbles. Everyone knows the context. If anyone needs a reminder that color was involved, it's there in "mulatter, most as white as a white man."

The concept, 'member of a slave race, a race fit for nothing but slavery, a race without rights', thankfully hardly exists for us. For us, 'nigger' is just a rude word for 'Black person.'

'Slave' brings home what it was really about.
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From:james_nicoll
Date:January 9th, 2011 04:34 am (UTC)
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OK, so nigger will be changed to slave but all the kids are supposed to mentally substitute nigger back in?
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From:houseboatonstyx
Date:January 9th, 2011 06:58 am (UTC)
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'Substitute' does not apply. What's needed is both ideas, conflated -- a concept which thank God we no longer have.
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From:demiurgent
Date:January 8th, 2011 06:44 pm (UTC)
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Part of the point of the study of literature is its ability to allow us to understand other people -- people who aren't like ourselves -- from their perspective. Part of the reason to study classic literature is to understand something about who we as a culture were, on our way to becoming who we are.

One reason we study Huckleberry Finn is because it took a slice of our history and encapsulated it -- not simply reflecting the time it was written in, but reaching for and trying to change that time. That gives us perspective not only on the time when human beings were chattel -- but understanding that in that time, it was still seen as wrong.

By changing the text to reflect the sensibilities of the current era, we are changing our capacity to understand not only what was, but what tried to be. If one does that, then what is the point in reading Huckleberry Finn in the first place? There are certainly more entertaining books.

If the study of Huckleberry Finn seems pointless to you because it doesn't directly speak to the common experience of teenagers in Western society today, I quail, just a bit. The last thing the study of literature in any form needs to do is just reinforce the current cultural norm. That way leads to King Lear having a happy ending in the 19th century -- it doesn't simply change the work, it completely obliterates it, leaving something else in its wake.

If someone wants to write a 21st century version of Huckleberry Finn, power to them. There's a place for Recontextualization and it's a core element of our culture. But if someone, in a literature class, purports to actually study Huckleberry Finn, then I think the least we can expect is they will study the actual book.

Words matter. Changing them matters. And studying them matters.

Edited at 2011-01-08 06:47 pm (UTC)
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From:heron61
Date:January 8th, 2011 08:48 pm (UTC)
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Words matter. Changing them matters. And studying them matters.

I agree that words matter, and that's why I don't want teens, and especially not teens of color reading vile & hurtful slurs, just because those slurs were part of normal discourse 120 or so years ago. To me, the integrity of the book is vastly less important than not reinforcing modern prejudice with such words.
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From:kitten_goddess
Date:January 9th, 2011 02:43 am (UTC)
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Have you listened to rap music lately? It's full of the n-word and much worse. Black and white teens listen to that. Censoring the n-word in Huckleberry Finn is not going to insulate them from hearing that sort of language.
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From:demiurgent
Date:January 9th, 2011 03:44 am (UTC)
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Whereas for me, the last thing I want is for the experience of teens of any color only experiencing that word in the current Hip Hop Community and Boondocks sense, where it becomes little more than punctuation. By being exposed to the word in all its hatefulness, maybe -- just maybe -- we can educate about it.
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From:queerbychoice
Date:January 8th, 2011 10:34 pm (UTC)
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As someone who works in the field of educational publishing, I can absolutely promise you that if publishers start getting away with changing the words in books, students will soon never again be allowed to read any book that hasn't had fully half its content censored.

If Huckleberry Finn isn't appropriate for high school students in its uncensored form, then it shouldn't be assigned at all. Let students read a different book. But as long as students are reading actual books by the original authors, they'll get a far better education than they would if they were reduced to reading "cleaned up" books with all references of any kind to racism, evolution, sex, pregnancy, abuse, swearing, politically controversial topics of any kind, and so on, deleted from every book they ever see.
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From:heron61
Date:January 9th, 2011 04:15 am (UTC)
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If Huckleberry Finn isn't appropriate for high school students in its uncensored form, then it shouldn't be assigned at all.

That also works as an answer that I can easily accept.
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From:nancylebov
Date:January 9th, 2011 12:59 pm (UTC)
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There was a high school edition of Bradbury's Farenheit 451 with 75 cuts-- the bowdlerization was discovered after 12 years.

The amusing thing is that the book got a couple of predictions right-- books were eliminated because of concerns with offending people. (The other correct prediction was that tv screens would get bigger and bigger.)
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From:mindstalk
Date:January 8th, 2011 11:31 pm (UTC)
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How are modern teens harmed by reading about 19th century fictional racists using a slur?
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From:houseboatonstyx
Date:January 9th, 2011 12:26 am (UTC)
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Heron,

While I disagree with almost all your reasons, I do agree with your conclusion (aiui). Imo this is a fuss over very little. This is one small edition. It's not going to replace all other copies of the book, and probably won't even be used in any school that isn't already banning the original.

It's up to each particular school or each particular family which (if any) edition they want their children to read. The more versions, the more choices -- the better.

Once a child has enjoyed the plot and the flow of the story, then she may be motivated to read the original -- and be able to understand it better. (Oh, woops, you don't want any version read? Sorry, wrong argument. ;-)
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From:amberite
Date:January 9th, 2011 04:14 am (UTC)
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I think this is an interesting thing to set out to do, and I rather support it but with one change: instead of altering "n*****" to "slave" - which in context would sometimes be an insulting/injurious term and sometimes simply a factual one for the era - alter it to "negro", which is perhaps about as shocking in the modern era as "n*****" was at the time; and then where "negro" is used in its historical contest change it to "black (man, woman, person, folk, etc.)"

This retains a sort of ... context gradient? ... that I think the proposed change is missing: gives the sense of when a racial slur is being used and when not. I also agree with the comment that there should be a foreword.
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From:houseboatonstyx
Date:January 9th, 2011 07:10 am (UTC)
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That might be a reasonable approach for some readers (if they were not distracted by critics' heads exploding on all sides). But some contexts in the book need the insulting/injurious force of 'slave' as well. And a term like 'Negro slave' wouldn't work imo, because it suggests that some Negros were not slaves, that race and slavery were two separate things. Which is factually true, but was not true in the minds of the characters here. To Huck's Pa, or to Huck, 'Negro/n___ slave' would be a tautology.
From:dantalion64
Date:January 12th, 2011 07:46 pm (UTC)

response part 1

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I think the publicity surrounding this version of Huck Finn sets a very, very bad precedent for altering texts according to the shifting winds of public sentiment (I'm not saying public sentiment is wrong, mind you; just that it does shift, and will continue to shift). This isn't an issue of copyright, but of artistic integrity. Twain was far from an idiot; he knew exactly what he was doing when he was writing this book. He chose to use the word for its effect. To change his text is to disrespect the artist's choice, even if it's a choice we don't like. Do we want this to become a standard action of publishing companies? "Prospective customers don't like this and this and this in the text, so I'm going to change them all to sell more copies" (and I'm sorry, but I can't help but think this move was motivated by profit, not goodness; I have no doubt there will be a considerable market for this book, in the form of schools who want to teach it, but have been prevented by protesting parents). Once you start this, where do you stop?

Eliminating the n-word from public discourse? I don't think this is remotely possible. I'd like to think otherwise, but given the long history of human hatred and exclusion, I just don't see it happening. Given the existence and growth of the Internet, which has as many hurtful and negative uses as beneficial ones, the word will never disappear from use. The Internet exists as a more-or-less permanent record, for better and for worse, and with our culture being increasingly homogenized, short of censoring the entire Internet (the slipperiest of slopes!), there's no way to "disappear" the word.

Instead, I think the elimination of the n-word in Twain's text will give it more power. The word has acquired a perverse form of veneration: it has a unique power in American English, and its power is derived from fear, not only the fear engendered in those it is used against, but also in those who fear to be judged by using it in the context of discussion, as I am now. (Note that I am not equating these two forms of fear; I am merely pointing out the far-reaching effects of the word.)

This accretion of power is similar to the name "Voldemort" in Harry Potter. Everyone was afraid to say it (for different reasons than the n-word, of course, but it's the mechanism I'm getting at here). The more people feared it, the more power it accrued, and the more it negatively affected people when it was used. The very act of avoiding the word communicated to all that its power was undiminished. I don't have a solution for this quandary; I can only say that by creating a taboo, we invite its violation. The stronger the taboo, the more its existence influences those who are aware of it. In a sense, continuing to strongly act to suppress the word is telling blacks that it should still affect them, should still hurt them.

I am not condoning increasing use of the word to "dull" its effects. But there's a power transaction at work here, and to ignore its workings is to ignore its effects. I don't know the ethnic origins of anyone who has commented here except for John, but ultimately he and I are two white males engaging in a discourse of what word is or isn't, or should and shouldn't, be harmful to blacks. In this context, the word is still one of oppression. It has been decided that people need protecting from it: beneficent masters shielding the poor common folk. But who says the people who might be hurt by it can't protect themselves? Why does the word appears so frequently in rap? Because the blacks who use it are attempting to seize ownership of it, to wrest the decisions of where and how it can or can't be used from others. They make those choices, not others who assume they know what's best for everyone.
From:dantalion64
Date:January 12th, 2011 07:47 pm (UTC)

Re: response part 2

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Here's a statement I found particularly interesting:

"Given that teens now grow up almost exclusively in cities & suburbs, with cars, cellphones, the internet, legal racial and sexual equality, modern medicine, television, and the many other often drastic changes since the 19th century, it's really hard for me to see how useful this book will as any sort of statement about growing up and adult choices."

I find the implications staggering. It's about half a step short of saying "nothing written prior to a particular point in time has use in this time." To me, it's quite the contrary: the best written works are the ones that reflect the fact that the basics of humanity, of "humanness," have NOT changed, despite the wholesale changes in technology and lifestyle. I think that Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet is a prime example of this: trappings, changed. Text, unchanged. The effect is the same. It's a great romance and a damned tragedy that never fails to punch me in the gut even though I know how it's going to turn out, regardless of whether I'm reading it, watching a stage version, or a movie.

And if you say "Well, that's Shakespeare, for crying out loud," now we've moved into the realm of value judgment, where if a book is judged to be of sufficient value, it is to be untouched; lesser works, however, can be changed as desired, no biggie. I have a big problem with that conclusion.

There's another problem, and that is of public discourse about the work. In essence, there are now two versions of Huck Finn: one with the word and with another word in its place. Perhaps in the future there'll be further changes. Before any meaningful dialogue about the work can being, it must be ascertained which version we're talking about. Confusing, to say the least. It's like discussing "the" Bible: which of the umpteen versions are we looking at?

A word about the substitution: there is a paradox in the idea that "slave" is as impactful a word as the n-word. If it is, shouldn't we eliminate that word, too? Any word that has as much effect as the n-word must also be as capable of the same level of harm, and should therefore be replaced with something else. In fact, wasn't the whole point to find a less impactful word? The idea that "slave" is somehow effective as a substitute simply does not stand to reason.

And a final word about the preface in the new edition. I find the idea insufficient. When I pick up a copy of a book, I shouldn't have to read a preface to see if I'm getting what the author actually wrote, or something in which a retroactive co-author has introduced different text. There needs to be something on the cover of the book: "Adapted." "Modernized." "Altered." Or maybe "sanitized for your protection."
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From:heron61
Date:January 12th, 2011 09:08 pm (UTC)

Re: response part 1

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Eliminating the n-word from public discourse? I don't think this is remotely possible. I'd like to think otherwise, but given the long history of human hatred and exclusion, I just don't see it happening.

Except that we have examples of exactly this happening. Have you ever heard anyone (in person, not in old media) use the old anti-Italian slur "wop", it was common 70 years ago, now it's extinct. Of course, so it anti-Italian prejudice in the US. However, there are also several anti-semitic slurs that are (in the US at least) nearly as extinct - google the word "kike" and you'll see what I mean. I don't know if it's possible to make a word extinct, but for a slur that's already not acceptable on radio or TV, I think there's a good chance.

Twain was far from an idiot; he knew exactly what he was doing when he was writing this book. He chose to use the word for its effect.

Absolutely, but times and languages change, and that's a word that was far more common and acceptable in 1884 than it is in 2011. At worst, it was like "damn" or some similar word back then, now it's the social equivalent of complex multi-syllable profanity.

I am not condoning increasing use of the word to "dull" its effects. But there's a power transaction at work here, and to ignore its workings is to ignore its effects. I don't know the ethnic origins of anyone who has commented here except for John, but ultimately he and I are two white males engaging in a discourse of what word is or isn't, or should and shouldn't, be harmful to blacks.

That my friend is an exceedingly good point.
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From:rjgrady
Date:January 22nd, 2011 05:43 am (UTC)
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Slavery is not equivalent to negritude. Were a black man free, he would still be a nigger, and no Greek slaves were not niggers to their masters. The problem with eradicating a word is that the word is innocent; it is the thought that is poisonous. If you want to eliminate racial hated, eliminate it; do not forbid words of evil to artists who would illuminate them while leaving them in the hands of moral outlaws and vulgar multitudes.

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