January 7th, 2011 by Will Entrekin

Huck Finn, Mark Twain, and “That Word”

“The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
-Mark Twain

This past week, a publishing house called New South announced a new, combined edition of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn from which its editor had changed every appearance of the word “nigger” to “slave.” The editor is a so-called Twain scholar (I have some issues with calling anyone who supports such a move a “scholar”) who feels it’s a good option when encountering “a different kind of audience than a professor usually encounters; what we always called ‘the general reader.’”

That Publishers Weekly article continues:

The idea of a more politically correct Finn came to the 69-year-old English professor over years of teaching and outreach, during which he habitually replaced the word with “slave” when reading aloud. Gribben grew up without ever hearing the “n” word (“My mother said it’s only useful to identify [those who use it as] the wrong kind of people”) and became increasingly aware of its jarring effect as he moved South and started a family. “My daughter went to a magnet school and one of her best friends was an African-American girl. She loathed the book, could barely read it.”

Now, my aunt gave me Huckleberry Finn when I was a kid. I think it’s important to note I couldn’t read it for the first several years I owned it. Literally: couldn’t. Here’s the first paragraph of Huckleberry Finn:

You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary. Aunt Polly — Tom’s Aunt Polly, she is — and Mary, and the Widow Douglas is all told about in that book, which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before.

Not too difficult, but Huckleberry Finn speaks in dialect, and dialect is tough to read. At least, it was when you’re a kid who’s mostly been reading The Hardy Boys up until then. Not that you’ve ever been that kid, but I certainly was.

But that ain’t no matter right now. The matter right now is the censoring of a great book by a great author. And yes, that’s what I’d call it, so you can figure out where I stand on the subject.

It’s not a controversial stance. Lots of people have already written lots of pieces opining what a boneheaded move it is. And it’s totally boneheaded, for the record.

Haven’t read anyone discuss why it’s happening, though, or seen any other professors talk about it. Maybe I just haven’t read enough. Not sure, but I thought, being a sometimes professor myself, and having taught race and fiction myself, discussing it was worthwhile.

Now, caveat: I’m not and never have been a full professor, with tenure or even a secure job. But I taught composition at USC, and that institution addressed me as a professor, and that’s, I think, good enough to start. I’ve taught writing at three different higher education institutions, one university, one community college, and one college. I’ve had a lot of experience with a diversity of students. In the previous institution in which I taught, I also taught a seminar in prose fiction, during which we read the works of authors like James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, and during which I specifically addressed the issues that sent Dr. Gribben fleeing to his edition of a classic novel with his red pen.

I never edited any novels.

I have taught stories that have brought up many of the issues Dr. Gribben hopes to sidestep by changing a word to “slave.” I don’t think it will work as a solution. Because as a solution, it fails to address the problem. The problem, of course, being how society so badly treated an entire group of people bonded solely by the color of their skin.

Now, I taught prose fiction at Saint Peter’s College in Jersey City, to a group of around twenty students, all of whom were at least sophomores, and all of whom were canny and intelligent. Saint Peter’s, being in the heart of Jersey City, has a diverse and multicultural student body, including not only students of many different races but also many different creeds and sexualities. There is a level of acceptance–not tolerance, but acceptance–at Saint Peter’s I’ve witnessed in few other places. All students are just that–students–and their work is judged by its quality. I think perhaps Jesus himself claimed “You will know me by my work,” and Saint Peter’s, being a Jesuit institution, seems to uphold that tenet.

I taught, in addition, a diversity of material. We began our semester with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and concluded with, I think, Jack London, and in the middle managed everyone from Hawthorne to Poe to Faulkner to King. We used a book called The Art of the Short Story, edited by Dana Gioia, who was, for years, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and whom I’ve met, and shaken hands with, and spoken to at a small college event when I was an undergrad. He’s great, and I was happy to teach stories from a collection he edited.

The collection is pretty broad in scope, and includes classics as well as contemporaries. The stories that have bearing to this discussion of Twain and race, however, were “Sonny’s Blues,” by James Baldwin, and “A Party Down at the Square,” by Ralph Ellison. I’d encountered very little by either author before: I admit I’ve never read The Invisible Man because I was never assigned it. I plan to resolve that in the not-too-distant future.

Now, “Sonny’s Blues” is a terrific short story set mainly in Harlem, and it’s about familial relationships, and drugs, and music. James Baldwin knows Harlem. It’s obvious in the way he writes about it, and our classroom was only a few miles and seventy five years from the time and place he wrote about; I don’t know about my students, but I could feel a certain echo. It’s a brilliant story.

(and due to the magic of the Internet, here it is, via Scribd:

Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin )

See? Great story.

Sadly, “A Party Down at the Square” doesn’t seem to be so readily available. It’s about a lynching of a black man that takes place at a public square, and Ellison tells it from the point of view of a white man. The narrator calls the black man in question a “Bacote nigger.”

Now, I don’t believe in skirting around issues. I know Dr. Gribben is citing his own discomfort at the word “nigger” as his reason for censoring Twain. And I know, when I read “A Party Down at the Square,” it made me uncomfortable. I was a straight white guy in a bow tie and a sweater vest standing in front of 20 or so students from many different backgrounds and heritages and who all went to school at a campus in the heart of Jersey City. So how does a straight white dude handle discussion of race in fiction? Because that prompts the question of what a straight white dude even knows about race as it appears in fiction.

Thing is, I’m not just a straight white dude. I’m a lot of things in life. We all are. I think part of the problem stems from an assumption that just because two people have the same skin color, or the same sexual orientation, they must be alike. When, no, that’s not true. They may share some characteristics and may even have some similar experiences, but alike?

When I went in to teach “A Party Down at the Square,” I began the class period with a quiz. One of the questions was simple: what does the narrator call the man who was lynched. The answer I was looking for was “Bacote nigger.”

Because you can’t skirt it. Maybe it’s uncomfortable, but I think it’s worth considering why it’s so uncomfortable.

I’ve read a couple of people, including Dr. Gribben, call “nigger” the worst of all slurs. And I wonder: is it, really, or is it the one that makes white people feel most guilty? Is it really worse than “wop” or “dago” or “mick”? Who determines that? Is it really worse than “fag”? Who gets to say calling a black person a “nigger” is worse than calling a gay person a “fag”?

Me, personally, I’m of the mindset that we should maybe endeavor not to call anyone perjorative names. And I’ve been called them, myself. When I was a kid attending Catholic schools, my classmates often called me a “fag.” The fact that I wasn’t actually gay seemed to make little difference to their derision. Neither did the fact that many years later, many of them, at least according to Facebook, have found themselves in very healthy, very happy relationships with members of their own gender.

That’s a digression.

But perhaps Gribben and others are right. Maybe it is the worst slur. But as long as you’re not actually calling anyone a “nigger,” should it really be removed from the discussion?

When I taught fiction within the context of race, I realized that moreso than being careful, I should be honest with my students. I’ve always thought that being honest is more important than being right, and I think, if you tell a student who asks a question, “You know, I’m not sure, but I’ll do some research and try to figure it out. In the meantime, what do you think about it?” you’re more likely to deserve the respect students generally give you anyway because you’re their professor.

So when I taught race in my class, the first thing I acknowledged was that I was a straight white dude. I acknowledged to them that I tended to disagree with criticism that focused on race or gender, but then again, they had to take that with a grain of salt given that I’m a white dude. If I disagree with something a woman who identifies as a feminist believes, the caveat would be that, as a male, I don’t have the feminine perspective.

That doesn’t mean, I told them, that my opinion is less valid. That doesn’t mean that, in my eyes, their opinions are less valid. What it means is that when considering multiple ideas, one must consider the contexts of those ideas, and one key component of the context of any message is the perspective of the messenger delivering it.

Now, in the context of race, I told my students, I have the perspective of a person who is white. The only perspective I have of people who are black is the perspective they communicate to me, by words in the case of literature, and to dismiss that perspective would be to lose out on a possible better understanding of a perspective I don’t have, and otherwise wouldn’t have any access to. I think that multiple perspectives are important.

In terms of discussion, then, I focused on the stories and what James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison (among myriad other writers) were telling us. I focused on those ideas.

One idea that comes up in the context of academic criticism is that of “The Other,” and the inability of any one to know the other. The last time I saw it really mentioned was here, at Books I Done Read, wherein Raych read Will Self’s Dorian, and at the end wondered:

What say ye? Is there an inherent problem with a straight man portraying a whack of gay men? Is there only a problem if he makes them all super-rowdy?

I think, by “whack,” she means many gay men, not that Self or his novel took a swipe at gay men. The book in question was about the gay culture during the start of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, though, and may or may not have featured a character who was intentionally spreading the virus. I’m not clear on that last bit, but still, there’s the proposition that there may be an inherent problem with a straight man writing about the gay culture. Further down that slope, though, there’s may be a problem with black men writing about white culture, or Asian women writing about American culture?

The idea of “the other,” though, strikes me as troublesome. We’re all others to everyone else, aren’t we?

This, I think, comes to issue with New South’s edition. Because, as my former professor Shelly Lowenkopf tweeted, next up would be a censoring of Conrad’s The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’.

Which I find a bit dubious if only because what seems to focus on Twain is that Huckleberry Finn is widely read/taught, or there is the desire that it should be. Not that people shouldn’t be teaching Conrad, but don’t most focus on Heart of Darkness when they do?

But what about that Ellison story? Should we en masse write to Dana Gioia and request a re-mastering of The Art of the Short Story, in which “A Party Down at the Square,” is sanitized? Or is it okay for Ellison to use the word but not Twain? Concerning the idea of “the other,” and the problem of writing therefrom, isn’t Ellison’s story an example of that, given that it’s told from the perspective of a white character? Does the fact that the character is white mean Ellison shouldn’t use the word?

Talk about slippery slopes.

When I teach, I tell my students, at the start of the semester, that our room is safe. I want people to be able to say anything they feel they need to using the language communicating it requires. I reminded them of that during those classes, because I didn’t want to continually say “the n-word,” or “that word.” “Nigger” is not a nice word. But it’s a word that’s been used, and if it comes up in fiction, we need to be able to discuss its use and the reasons it’s used. To, instead, censor a classic work of literature is to shirk the responsibility of presenting great writing to a class of students whose lives it may change and is, in fact, I feel, the mark of a poor professor, and one who has not built a strong enough relationship with his students to be able to intelligently and meaningfully discuss the material and all the myriad issues it might raise.

In class, then, knowing that all these issues could be raised, knowing the controversy over the use of the word “nigger” in certain contexts but not in others, we discussed how language changes. How context changes language. How the context of a story can alter the meaning of the language it uses.

I showed some YouTube videos during that class. I thought I’d share them here. I feel they’re relevant:

And here’s Mos Def introducing Smokey Robinson, who makes the point that we’re all black, because we’re all, technically, African by virtue of the geography of the origin of the human species:

Of course, that’s one point among many others, and Smokey is a smart, smart man.

Which is more than I can say for Gribben and whoever at New South decided this was a good publishing venture to get behind.

Here’s a promise, though: if New South goes ahead with their expurgated texts, Exciting Books will make sure there are Kindle-ready PRCs of both The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry available for you. As a reader, as a student, and maybe as, who knows, a new Twain scholar. Maybe new Twain scholars will know that part of the reason Twain is so great is his use of words. Maybe they’ll realize that “slave” is merely the “almost-right” word, and Twain knew what he was meaning to write when he wrote it.

Comments

4 Responses to “Huck Finn, Mark Twain, and “That Word””
  1. JEFFREY says

    Most of your post seemed to be focused on adult readers, college students, and generally those who are supposed to be mature enough to handle the N-word when they see it in literature. Granted. I think you’re right — in a college setting, everyone’s supposed to be at a level where discussions about race and its pejorative notations can take place.

    In reality, though, it’s not true. Sometimes even college isn’t a safe place for these discussions. As an undergrad writing major, I asked an innocent question about a classmate’s story, which was about a bi-racial young woman. I asked because as a white male, I’d never had the experience described in the story, and I was curious to know more about it. Instead of fostering discussion, my question was met with a torrent of verbal abuse from a black student who was deeply offended by my question. Sometimes, even well-intentioned college students are too passionate about issues of race to have a healthy discussion.

    That’s not to say I disagree with you, because I don’t. College is supposed to be where we learn and expand our horizons by listening to other perspectives. We should have discussions related to race there, because college should provide an environment that facilitates exploring experiences that are otherwise unfamiliar to us.

    That said, there’s something your post didn’t really touch on. I’m sure you’ve probably read this in your examination of the topic of Mark Twain’s “censorship,” but there is one niche of student where this change can help: high school students. I read a lot of literature in high school that I didn’t fully appreciate because I was, you know, a young high school student who lacked the capacity to truly appreciate great literature. But the N-word is such a hot-button issue today even among adults that some schools, unfortunately, are left with two options: teaching Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and infuriating parents who don’t believe a high school text with the N-word should be taught to their kids, or not teaching it at all.

    Like any writer, I believe a writer’s work should be read as published and as intended. In college, that should always be the case.

    But in high school, curriculum is influenced to a greater degree by the reactions of parents. If making this one change allows more high schools to teach Mark Twain without the fiery distraction that is the N-word, then I think I’m okay with that. Because the alternative is having a generation of high school students who haven’t read it at all. (Whether they’ll appreciate having read it in high school is, of course, another question entirely.)

    Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer will always be available in their original form, and professors should definitely use them. But I see this slightly changed edition as a viable alternative to a text that divides the academic community that determines the content taught in our high schools.

    I know high school wasn’t the point of your post, but I do believe it’s a point worth raising in the context of this discussion.

  2. Hmmmm. Good points. You’re right, I was intending this more as a college discussion. Especially given Gribben is a college professor. So far as high school . . . I get what you’re saying. On the other hand, Twain wrote the novels “for adults exclusively.” Which is not to say that I think that what is written for an adult audience shouldn’t be taught in high school, but then again, work with mature themes demand mature treatments. Perhaps reading them is what matures students, which prompts a chicken-egg sort of situation, but on the other hand . . . discussing race can lead to many ideas, topics, and thoughts that must be handled with sensitivity. I’m not sure I’d endeavor to fully discuss race with a twelve year old.

    Truthfully, in a high school setting, my inclination would be to introduce students to the sorts of controversies reading the book has raised, and I would require that the book be taught only two high school juniors and seniors. I’m not sure Huck Finn should be taught to kids. I’m not sure anyone under 14 would really understand the language of the book, much less its themes. I know I didn’t, at that age.

    As for having a generation of high school students who haven’t read it at all, well, that was very much Twain’s intention, it seems.

    You mention parents, too, and I think that’s a big point; I doubt students were upset by it. Honestly, infuriate enough parents and then ban the book and you’re basically guaranteeing students are going to flock to he thing, right? I read someone say that about “Hey Jude,” earlier. That he’d been in a car and the driver had shut it off midway through because after that it was just noise, and the first thing the writer did was listen to the full version of it.

    One idea (unrelated to your post, Jeffrey) that I forgot to circle back around to, was Gribben’s “a different kind of audience than a professor usually encounters; what we always called ‘the general reader.’” Which I’m going to take an opportunity to note know seems to me to smack of elitism and condescension of the worst possible sort, and may be emblematic of the perspective from which Gribben is approaching the matter.

  3. Geesus christ, Will, did you overthink this to almost criminal proportions.

    My 10-year-old daughter read it and commented to me, “Isn’t it sad that, even though they were friends, he still called him the ‘n-word’? Here they are, partners and equals, and it’s still okay for him to say that.”

    That was (damn-near verbatim) from a *child*.

    Mark Twain wasn’t stupid – he doesn’t need to have his works “fixed” for our PC-modern times.

    His inclusion of the word “nigger” wasn’t a reflection of his racism – it was a reflection of our times when the work was written.

    In my essays on the racism I’ve experienced, if anyone changed the word “kike” to something like “concentration camp victim” or some other stupid shit…well, you could probably power the entire planet with the energy I’d be generating from rolling over in my grave.

    It’s TRUTH. It’s class division of the time.

    And people seem to act like it was okay for us to hear/read the words back in the ’70s or ’80s (or whenever everyone went to school) but it now, somehow, *isn’t* in the ’10s? In my house, at least, that word wasn’t acceptable, so the inclusion of the word didn’t make me okay with using it.

    I think we’re underestimating our children. Or possibly under-raising them with anemic morals – if they’re so easily swayed by a word in a book by someone we’re told is great without judging that person on their own merits.

    It’s fucked up all the way around.

    Oops, sorry, I accidentally said “fucked”…please edit this to make my word appear as nothing more than “harmless” asterisks.

  4. DPS: I totally agree with you. On all counts. Reflection of times, class division, racism, etc. And it seems most people in such positions underestimate other people’s children, not to mention other children’s parents.

    I always tend to overthink things, sadly. I like to play like I’m intuitive about things, but I fear I tend to be analytical. Especially when it comes to communicating with other people.

    Which is funny, because I seem to communicate best when I stop thinking about other people and just sit quietly with the words. That’s when I can do some magic with them.

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