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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Kevin Mac Donnell <[log in to unmask]>
Tue, 11 Jan 2011 22:02:39 -0600
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
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> "As a notoriously commercial writer who watched for every opportunity to
> enlarge the mass market for his works, [Twain] presumably would have been
> quick to adapt his language if he could have foreseen how today's 
> audiences
> recoil at racial slurs in a culturally altered country." This presumption 
> is
> a long leap. References to actions or statements supporting the likelihood
> of such a response would lend it more credibility.

Twain often changed his texts on the advice of Howells or his wife Livy, or 
after he tested them on lecture-circuit audiences, and he either initiated 
or agreed to the deletion of one entire chapter about lynching from one of 
his books because it might hurt sales of that book in the south. It's not so 
long a leap as it might seem. It's a hop, maybe a skip, but not even a jump.

> "I invariably substituted the word "slave" for Twain's ubiquitous n-word
> whenever I read any passages aloud. Students and audience members seemed 
> to
> prefer this expedient, and I could detect a visible sense of relief each
> time, as though a nagging problem with the text had been addressed." The
> psychological and sociological factors driving these sorts of behaviors is
> complex and influenced by many factors. Were these factors considered? A
> much larger question, though, is the basis upon which it was concluded 
> that
> an audience's apparent favorable reaction to the expurgation of an
> uncomfortable term is a valid basis upon which to make the decision to
> expurgate it.

As somebody else pointed out, "nigger" is a hurtful word to many and if a 
student is hurting that student is not learning. If you teach the book 
that's a valid consideration. I've seen several in this Forum admit that 
they substitute something else for the word "nigger" when reading the book 
aloud to a class. But do those same people think that the word "nigger" is 
somehow less objectionable (or less an obstacle to appreciating Twain's 
work) when it's merely read by a student?

> "Unquestionably both novels can be enjoyed just as deeply and 
> authentically
> if readers are not obliged to confront the n-word on so many pages." I'm 
> not
> aware of any evidence to support such a sweeping conclusion. I'm not sure 
> it
> is even possible to design an experiment that could consistently and
> objectively measure the relative depth and authenticity of a reader's
> enjoyment across two versions of a text. Even if such could be devised, it
> is doubtful that "enjoyment" can legitimately be considered the intent of
> Twain's use of the n-word in the text.

Twain had a fixation (some might say an obsession) with the word "that." He 
became very irritated with authors who over-used this word and habitually 
struck it out of the texts that he read, sometimes several times per page, 
page after page. He'd also make wrathful comments in the margins about the 
authors who used "that" too many times. Once, in conversation, somebody 
claimed that "that" could not be used more than four times consecutively in 
a sentence and Twain quickly gave an example -- "It's not that that that 
that refers to, but..."  I think he could have said "It's not that that that 
that that refers to..." but it could be that "that that that that that" is 
bad grammar. That's something I'll leave for others. But it's clear Twain 
himself enjoyed a text with very few "thats." Maybe some folks enjoy a text 
better without that word "nigger."

> "Consequently in this edition I have translated each usage of the n-word 
> to
> read 'slave' instead, since the term 'slave' is closest in meaning and
> implication." This is patently and demonstrably false, yet it is presented
> as an obvious, universally accepted fact. The n-word is a very specific 
> and
> powerful epithet, while "slave" is a generic descriptor that, to my
> knowledge, has never been commonly used as an epithet (or even an
> appellation).*

I agree that "slave" does not substitute well for "nigger" in every instance 
(the word "slave" also appears in the original text of HF). To our modern 
ears "slave" does not have the sting that "nigger" does, but what about in 
1835-45 (or 1885) when "nigger" may have been used more casually? We like to 
think that Twain used the word to draw attention to racism, and he did, but 
it's a mistake to think that Twain or his contemporary readers found this 
particular word as offensive as we do now. It might have been more freighted 
with prejudice than "slave" but not so vastly more powerful and offensive as 
we view it now. In contemporary reviews of the HF I recall reviewers 
commenting on the generally rough language of the coarse characters, but I 
don't recall any that took Twain to task specifically for using the word 
"nigger." Twain himself used the word with rancor in the 1850s in letters to 
his family, but he was also using it casually in the last few years of his 
life. This might be a good moment to mention that on the subject of racism 
the late great Lou Budd observed that Twain was not so far ahead of his 
times on the subject of race as many of his modern admirers would like to 
imagine, but that he was certainly on the leading edge of the progressive 
thinking of his day on the subject.

. A fairly succinct introduction to the relevant linguistic
> issues can be found in the first few sections of 'The Semantics of Racial
> Epithets' ( by Christopher
> Hom.
> Dan Davis
> Atlanta, GA

That's a good suggestion. I can also suggest Randall Kennedy's book, NIGGER, 
THE STRANGE CAREER OF A TROUBLESOME WORD (2002), which includes some 
references to Twain and a discussion of his `Only a Nigger.'  I strongly 
recommend reading the revised enlarged edition, with illustrations.

Mac Donnell Rare Books
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Austin TX 78730
Member: ABAA, ILAB
You may browse our books at

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