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Dan Davis <[log in to unmask]>
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Wed, 5 Jan 2011 15:13:24 -0500
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I have to admit to some hesitation at my first post here being on this
particular topic, but I find the news of this publication so disconcerting
that I'm just going to have to write through the pain.

First, while I know Gribben's isnít the first such effort, I still find it
ironic and appalling that HF survived the racial chaos of the 20th century
only to be quietly neutered now in such a Machiavellian fashion. Gribben has
concluded that it's more important to offer such a sanitized version that
will be accepted by witch hunting school boards and ignorant parents than to
protect the integrity (and power) of the work itself and instead working to
educate away the ignorance. 

That said, there are academic grounds upon which to object to this
publication. Missed by many of the vocal parties in the debate is the simple
fact that offending words have considerable power precisely because of the
additional semantic content that makes them offensive. Clemens knew how to
wield this power to shake assumptions and shatter the cultural shields that
protect prejudices. When we are given access to Huck's mind as he struggles
with the realization that he is beginning to see Jim as a human being, we
are deeply shaken because of the impact of the semantic baggage that
accompanies a word Gribben feels obliged to replace for the sake of

"Well, I tried the best I could to kinder soften it up somehow for myself by
saying I was brung up wicked, and so I warn't so much to blame; but
something inside of me kept saying, 'There was the Sunday-school, you could
a gone to it; and if you'd a done it they'd a learnt you there that people
that acts as I'd been acting about that nigger goes to everlasting fire.'"

When we read "that nigger," we are crushed under the weight of its cultural
baggage. Substitute "that slave," and we neatly sidestep an ocean of meaning
- in this case a significant portion of the context that is foundational to
the story. Word swaps in such cases always either add or remove semantic
content and thus alter meaning, but this instance is especially egregious
because a very specific term is being replaced by a very generic one whose
content is really quite different. Worse, since "slave" is so very generic,
the reader is forced to fill the specificity void by pouring semantic
content into it. The inevitable result, as professional translators and
linguists might put it, is "zero or wrong meaning." As used by Clemens,
"nigger" is a very specific and pivotal contextual link for which no viable
substitute exists.

To me, the very notion on which this kind of effort is founded -- that
semantically related words are interchangeable and such substitution does
not affect the integrity of content -- is naÔve at best. Gribben claims his
justification lies in making HF available to students to whom it would
otherwise be denied. Instead, his literary capitulation violates the
author's original intent, and enables the perpetuation of the very facades
the original work so effectively shattered. Can Gribben really have missed
the fact that much of HF's impact is bound up in its ability to expose the
offensiveness of wrongs the author's contemporaries embraced as truths? Word
choices matter, and I would think a professor of English would be even more
aware of and sensitive to this fact than most. 

The bottom line, though, is even simpler. Until today I foolishly assumed
that it was implicitly accepted across academia: An author's word choices
belong to that author alone.

I still can hardly believe we are having this conversation. If Dr. Gribben
is, as some have suggested, following these threads, I encourage him to
respond with a defense that can't be knocked over with a feather.

Dan Davis
Atlanta, GA