Untimely Observations

The De-Niggering of Huck Finn

Much is made in the mainstream media of the alleged perfidy of certain revisionist historians on the Right, whom they accuse of falsifying documents, whitewashing, and distorting history to suit a political agenda. Yet, alert students of history know well enough that the Left is not above revisionism. Indeed, in Leftists we find yet another example of accusers who are guilty of doing similar things they accuse others of doing, and who, in fact, do it on a much wider scale. Leftist revisionism is not limited to history, but extends even to classic works of literature. The latest example of politically motivated revisionism was reported by the BBC earlier today:  

Furore over 'censored' edition of Huckleberry Finn

A new edition of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is causing controversy because of the removal of a racially offensive word.

Twain scholar Alan Gribben says the use of the word "nigger" had prompted many US schools to stop teaching the classic.

In his edition, Professor Gribben replaces the word with "slave" [219 times] and also changes "injun" to "Indian".

. . .

Two days ago, the publisher, New South Books, posted this on their website:

In a bold move compassionately advocated by Twain scholar Dr. Alan Gribben and embraced by NewSouth, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn also replaces two hurtful epithets that appear hundreds of times in the texts with less offensive words, this intended to counter the “preemptive censorship” that Dr. Gribben observes has caused these important works of literature to fall off curriculum lists nationwide.

According to the BBC, the publisher has received dozens of telephone calls and hundreds of emails protesting the falsification of Mark Twain’s work. Noteworthy is the fact that the act of censorship is being presented as the well-intentioned exact opposite. Could it be that Professor Gribben was so frustrated by the self-censorship pervading centres of learning that he saw his revision of the original text as making the best of a bad job? The Irish Times reports:

“Let’s get one thing straight,” says Gribben, an Aubern University professor who has been vilified by both the left and right. “Mark Twain was a notoriously commercial and populist author. If he was alive today and all he had to do was change one word to get his book into every schoolhouse in America, he couldn’t change it fast enough.”

To which the Irish Times reporter repliers:

But he isn’t here and he can’t answer for himself. Maybe Twain would have screamed in indignation that his work was being robbed of its original meaning.

Indeed, Mark Twain was sensitive about his prose. The BBC again:

Mark Twain did not take kindly to editing.

He is quoted as saying that "the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter".

And when a printer made punctuation changes to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Twain wrote later that he had "given orders for the typesetter to be shot without giving him time to pray".

More egregiously, the self-censorship Professor Gribben is attempting to work around appears driven mainly by spineless White lecturers, not by angry Black students. The Irish Times article highlights this quite well:

Gribben, a likeable straight talker, is adamant that he is not robbing Twain of anything, merely making a small change so that English teachers are no longer embarrassed to read out loud in class.

. . .

I wondered what other black people thought of the N word and whether removing it from Twain would help bury a painful past or save white America from confronting its own history. I was pondering all on the subway on the way home when I heard two black teenagers talking. “Hey nigga, what’s up with you?” said one. The reply was instant “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with me nigga, something wrong with you though.”

Enter white Irish reporter with a copy of Huckleberry Finn and a massive avalanche of awkwardness. I stutter through an explanation of my article and show them a few of Mark Twain’s offending passages.

The first, 17-year-old Laurence Johnson, picks up the book, studies it for a moment and shuts it suddenly.

“So he said ‘nigger’. So what? People think slave owners called us African-Americans?” he says loudly. His friend laughs, so do some middle-aged black women sitting nearby, all of whom nod in agreement. Johnson, who is in his final year of high school in Brooklyn, puts himself in the place of a slave owner counting his slaves.

“One, two, three, four . . . damn, we got an African-American escaped up north!”

More laughter, some of the women are clapping their hands. “It’s about the timing,” says one of them, Katicha Spencer, a 42-year-old dental nurse from Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. “If some white person said that word to me, I’d be mad as hell. But if it’s from 100 years ago, and it’s someone trying to get the flavour of what people are saying, then that’s what people said. You can’t sugarcoat the past of this country, you can’t pretend it didn’t happen.” Her friends nod in agreement. “Mark Twain’s alright,” says one. “He’s not my boss.” Katicha gives her a high five and they laugh as they leave the train.

Another problem is that similar falsifications are also being effected with minor works of literature, where the arguments given to justify the bowdlerisation of Mark Twain cannot possibly apply. In 2002, Deodant Publishers, printed an edition of Bram Stokers’ Lair of the White Worm, with some. . . cosmetic alterations. An Amazon reviewer noted:

this Deodand version is not the original. It has been edited. One word has been changed throughout the book, but only in specific places: The 'good guys' do not say the "N" word, they say "native." The 'bad guys' use the "N" word.  

I do not remember any public debate triggered by the bowdlerisation of this book, which makes me wonder about the extensiveness of this practice, and whether we can trust modern editions of pre-PC literature by classic authors any longer. How many have been quietly edited in this way? How many more will they falsify, whitewash, or distort to suit, conform, or respond to the Left’s political agenda?

It reminds of the Stalinist practice of erasing inconvenient individuals from official photographs, following the individuals’ politically motivated murder. It seems old habits die hard…

Perhaps readers would like to share their views on this subject, in a polite and civilised fashion, with Prof. Alan Gribben (email: agribben@aum.edu).

Similarly, because businesses understand no other language but the once mighty Dollar, you may wish to give the publishers of Prof. Gribben’s revised Twain editions (due out in February) an idea of how enthusiastically you will be rushing to buy your copies: info@newsouthbooks.com.