In the canon of the pivotal literature of not just western thought but universally the works of Mark Twain represent for me the ne plus ultra. Oh yeah, there was that Shakespeare fella, too. But that is my point. As the works of Will should be inviolate, so must the works of Twain.
But last week we learned that a publishing company intends to ‘bowdlerize’ Huckleberry Finn, to rid it of references that just might cause the vapors in the more sensitive elements of PC society. All I can say is, tamper with Twain? How dare you? Really, how fucking dare you?
Alabama publishing house NewSouth Books has chosen to expunge HF of such pejorative human references as ‘nigger’, in the case of Huck’s runaway slave friend, Jim, and ‘Injun’ as in the case of half-breed bad guy, Injun Joe. In their place, in NewSouth’s bowdlerization of a classic they have substituted ‘slave’ for all N-word references, and ‘Indian’ for the obvious one.
Their motivation, says the publishing company, is to sanitize HF for juvenile readers in schools. This is nothing new. Pissy-assed school librarians have wanted to make HF ‘nice’ countless times in the past, again for the sake of the tiny tots and their sensibilities.
Well, that is the first fatal logical flaw in the whole drive to make HF politically correct. I state emphatically, Huckleberry Finn is not kiddie-lit. It is not a continuation of the juvenile centered Tom Sawyer, despite Huck’s presence as a character in TS. It is a very ‘adult’ book with nuances contained therein that no kid, unless he or she is one with a remarkable sense of social history (which would be doubtful) would ‘get’. It’s also not meant to be fun. It is a deadly serious story with a powerful and timeless theme about bigotry, about freedom and about the triumph of the human spirit. Obviously a lot of teachers and school librarians don’t get it either. These are possibly the same people who think Gulliver’s Travels is a kids’ book.
HF is the story of a quest for freedom and the Mississippi is a metaphor for that quest. In the context of the day Huck’s dismissive references to Jim’s race, and his sense of his own superiority despite the fact he is a wastrel runaway, capture the reality of the time about which Twain writes. In other words, at the beginning Huck sees himself as Jim’s superior. Any other reference, like ‘slave’ would have been faux. But, it comes to pass in their journey down the river that Huck begins to see Jim as a man and he learns to respect him and indeed love him.
The second fatal flaw is a misreading of Twain’s role in the story. Twain was vehemently an abolitionist and the whole point of HF is to decry the hideousness of slavery by offering a dose of reality.
Years ago a friend bequeathed to me a volume of the memoirs of HL Mencken. Mencken, my friend knew, was a kind of literary and journalistic hero of mine. At that same time in history Mencken had come under fire for references that were deemed anti-semitic, racist, and just downright un-PC.
“What people don’t seem to be able to grasp,” said my friend, who was far to the left politically, “is context. Mencken wrote in a time when such references were perfectly acceptable.” And again, to sanitize Mencken or refuse to read him is to do the literary world a disservice.
Oh, and for God’s sake, don’t even consider a reading or performance of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.
In Mencken’s day Amos ‘n Andy was considered perfectly acceptable radio fare, and it was indeed the most popular radio program for about a decade. In Twain’s day the N-word would have been the only realistic reference to an African-American.
It has changed. And it has changed for the better, and indeed certain words are charged and evoke attitudes. At the same time, the sanitization of a great work of literature for the sake of the forces of niceness is a hideous violation that much departs from the change of title of Agatha Christie’s original Ten Little (N-words) to Ten Little Indians. That represents merely a cosmetic change of title to something deemed a little more sensitive to modern acceptability, but changed no content. On the other hand the new one is arguably no more sensitive than the former and there are no doubt those who would like to see the latter now called Ten Little Native Americans.