Multiple Enthusiasms

Infinite jest. Excellent fancy. Flashes of merriment.

Tag: mark twain

Last week, I caught a post by Angela Perry, in which she mentions she’s considering “self-publishing” but ultimately moves on to discuss writers and tone. I honestly think that tone is at the heart of why people think a “debate” exists, and why there are two sides to it. Some of the rhetoric recently used has been hyperbolic and not-so-helpful, but I’ll be honest: I can, in ways, see why it’s been used. Why some loud, brash independent authors have resorted to using somewhat shocking language.

Publishing never used to be so divided, but then, it was never really so conglomerated, either.

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I wrote this as a comment elsewhere, but I think it deserves a spot of its own.

Isn’t one giant issue with the entire substitution that students aren’t going to know Huck used the word if their teachers don’t tell them he did?

Because they’re going to have to do so. Otherwise, Twain’s novel is changed completely. Doesn’t it entirely change the nature of the relationship between Huck and Jim? Doesn’t it entirely change Jim’s character and his motivations?

Do we really trust teachers to prequel every reading of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with that information?

Teacher: “Now class, we’re about to read what was once a very controversial novel, but we’ve made it more appropriate for your reading pleasure.”

Student: “How did you do that?”

Teacher: “We changed a word.”

Student: “Just one? Which one? Did Twain drop the f-bomb? I didn’t realize they had the f-bomb back then.”

Teacher: “No, it’s more egregious than the f-bomb.”

Student: “What’s ‘egregious’ mean?”

Teacher: “Bad. It was worse than the f-bomb.”

Student: “Worse than the f-bomb? What’s worse than the f-bomb? Did he say the c-word?”

Teacher: “Er. What’s the c-word?”

Student: “You know. The c-word. Rhymes with bunt.”

Teacher: “Where did you learn that word?! Er. But no. Not that one.”

Student: “Well which one? What’s the first letter?”

Teacher: “N.”

Student: “N? Er. What begins with ‘n’? Nincompoop? That’s not so bad.”

Teacher: “It wasn’t nincompoop.”

Student: “Um. Nutcracker?”

Teacher: “No. It was a word people used to call black people.”

Student: “Oh. You mean ‘nigger’?”

Teacher: “Yes, precisely. That’s what Huck used to call Jim. Now he calls him a ’slave.’”

Student: “But then that whole description of Jim’s having been a ‘free slave’ doesn’t make much sense.”

Teacher: “Well. Perhaps not. But we’ve avoided using a terrible word.”

Student: “‘Nigger’? Well, yeah, it’s awful, but Kanye and Tupac say it all the time. Why not Twain? It’s just his book. He was writing, like, 100 years ago. It was a lot different then, wasn’t it? It’s not like white folks go around dropping the world all willy-nilly now, is it? Honestly, you’ve wasted a lot of valuable time doing something trivial when we could have been discussing race in American in the 1800s and how it’s evolved, both in publishing and in culture, over the past century and a half. Honestly. What are you getting paid for, anyway?”

“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.

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I wish I could talk about the economy with more knowledge, but I admit up front I cannot. I’m actually looking forward to the next week or two, when my business class transitions from marketing to economics; I’m not sure it’s the sort of economics the country is having trouble with (I sense not so much), but even still I figure there will be connections I can make between the two.

I once read a magazine article about the stock market. I can’t remember which magazine published it, but Rolling Stone is my first guess. The article was about a coming market related to either bulls or bears, whichever is worse, and it parsed the market itself as a sort of nebulous popularity contest. It vaguely connected being a popular stock like Apple or Google or Microsoft (though this was in the days before Google, I believe) to being the popular kid in school, and made the analogy that such popularity was a sort of currency, which was why people traded and bartered it. Why people believed that something so ethereal as a small stake in a zero and a one could be worth actual cash money.

I remember enjoying the article immensely even if I didn’t really understand it. Like I’ve never understood economics, and like I certainly don’t understand what’s going on right now. I guess maybe I really am Joe Sixpack even though my drink of choice is a Smirnoff mixer or a nice glass of wine. But when I open up Yahoo! and its finance page tells me every damned time that the Dow has dropped another twenty points since the last time it piddled itself, and I know that’s bad. I know, vaguely, what it means that it dropped in points, but in real world terms?

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