Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Watering Down A Twain Classic

In December of 1884, a book about life along the Mississippi was published in England. Having been a success with British readers, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published in the U.S. two months later, and quickly earned inclusion on the list of great American novels. The story itself features a friendship between Huck, Tom Sawyer, and Slave Jim, and was meant to be a satire of racism and other social foibles. To make his point, Mark Twain used the word “nigger” 219 times in the dialogue of the book.

126 years later, Alan Gribben and NewSouth Books have come to the conclusion that schools aren’t teaching the book, because it features politically incorrect language. To solve this perceived problem, Gribben and NewSouth have decided to republish the classic, substituting “nigger” with “slave.”

Don’t misunderstand, I am, by no means, defending the conversational use of the offensively ignorant word. Standard use of the word, when spoken to refer to a member of a particular racial minority, instantly paints the speaker as being low class and loutish. This, in fact, was one of the points of the book. The use of the word was intended, by Twain, to label its speaker as ignorant, racist, or too naive to understand the hurtful nature of the word. Changing the word, changes the essence of the character speaking the word, and thus changes the message of the piece.

Imagine if Dorothy’s house had landed on the wicked lady of the east, or if Vito Corleone hadn’t agreed to only sell narcotics only to “the colored” in order to keep the peace among the families. The stories would have been different. No matter how you feel about Wicca and Mother Nature, Dorothy’s antagonist WAS a witch. We may very well sympathize with the Corleone Family, to some degree, but they WERE racist. Changing those facts, in order to appeal to a politically sensitive audience, changes the nature of the stories.

A writer, a good writer, chooses each word carefully in order to produce a certain effect, the same way a painter chooses specific colors to create a mood. Yes, some words are “bad,” there’s no denying it. However, a character using a “bad” word, doesn’t make it a bad book, or a book to be avoided. The fact that the word “nigger” makes people uncomfortable, isn’t a bad thing. In a day when hate speech is so prevalent that it drives people to shoot Congresswomen, I’m all for having teachers teach the original version of Twain’s classic, and having a class discussion about why the word is unacceptable today. Serving as a catalyst for such discussions, is one of the key purposes of good literature.

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