Huckleberry has himself a new adventure
know about me without you have read a book by the name of *The Adventures
of Tom Sawyer. *That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the
truth, mainly." -Huck Finn
Respected Twain scholar Dr. Alan Gribben, Chair of the English
Department at Auburn University, has cleaved the Twain World in twain. By
spearheading the publication of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures
of Huckleberry Finn without the dreaded n-word, Gribben has dragged Huck
into the 21st century, or has he?
In substituting "slave" for the debilitating word that appears
four times in Tom Sawyer and 219 times in Huck Finn, Gribben has
destigmatized those boy books for the 21st century classroom, or has
are flying across the Ethernet like our national identity is at stake, and
maybe it is.
Interestingly, back in 1885 the n-word was a kinder word than the
word "slave." Over time this epithet has doubled and tripled in preemptive
force to become the strongest secular blasphemy in the American lexicon.
Why? Because it carries an air of oppression when dropped from white lips.
Personally, I don't use the word when teaching Huck to AP English
students. The word is hurtful when spoken, and if you are being hurt you
can't learn. But let's look at both sides of the argument…
Gribben, in his introduction to the NewSouth publication, states,
"We may applaud Twain’s ability as a prominent American literary realist to
record the speech of a particular region during a specific historical era,
but abusive racial insults that bear distinct connotations of permanent
inferiority nonetheless repulse modern-day readers."
Jocelyn Chadwick, assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate
School of Education, who wrote a definitive book on teaching Huck,
*The Jim Dilemma:* *Reading Race in Huckleberry Finn*, weighs in with
this elegant comment, "Given the re-emergence of racial rhetoric from
a variety of interesting venues-Congress, Arizona, South Carolina, for
example, it would seem to me Twain's novel is a greater must-read than
ever before WITH all of the original language. The language in 'Huck'
was, is, and will always be offensive and uncomfortable; it should be;
it must be, until we 'get it.'"
In my estimation, if Ms. Chadwick could teach Huck to all our
eleventh-graders we would not be in need of an expurgated Huck Finn.
Noted Twain scholar and Professor of English at Stanford,
Shelley Fisher Fishkin suggests the attenuated edition of Huck should
make us shudder. "Facing history in all its offensiveness is crucial
to understanding it and transcending it, and literature is uniquely
positioned to help us do that." (I would kiss the hem of her garment
-if it were a new one).
But I also like this from Kevin MacDonnell: "I have an
uneasy feeling about tinkering with Twain's texts for any reason. But
if the reason is to bring the text to a readership that would
otherwise not experience the book at all, and the textual change is
openly acknowledged, then maybe this is a good thing, a sort of Huck
Finn with training wheels."
Though my favorite argument to date is this from Richard Lawson, "
So...great! I myself am working on a new edition of *Othello* in which the
word 'Moor' is replaced with 'nice man.'"
Martha Gould, revered Nevada Librarian Emeritus, told me on the
phone, "McAvoy, it's not censorship because we will still have a choice, but
that being said, I believe, as hateful and hurtful as that word has become
over time, it is denigrating to Mark Twain and to our history to attempt to
sanitize Huckleberry Finn." Now, as Martha Gould is my hero, where does
that leave me?
In my humble opinion, Dr. Gribben is giving us a tool with which
to teach Huck at the high school level without the peculiar word that sears
the eyeball and make makes the young African-American want to put the book
aside and be done with it.
The arguments will continue to flow, and I can only guess that Mr.
Clemens is looking down on Dr. Gribben from above, or up at Dr. Gribben from
somewhere else, and smiling at the controversy that Huck has created 125
years after his birth.
"But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the
rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can't
stand it. I been there before." -Huck Finn
The Mark Twain Cultural Center