Sunday, January 09, 2011

Censoring Twain?

The blogosphere is awash with comments on the recently announced plan to issue a modified version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, one in which the N word is replaced by the word "slave".

My own view is that this is a mistake, because it erodes the link between the work and the historical context that produced it.

Naturally, as with any act of censorship, people turn to Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 as a reference point - a couple of the better posts I have seen are here and here.

What is not always being reported is that Alan Gribben, the Twain scholar behind this new edition, is supposedly doing it in order to encourage US schools to start using Huckleberry Finn again, after a serious rapid decline in take-up of the book due to the presence of the N word; an interesting strategy which is explained in this Daily Telegraph blog.

I think Gribben is wrong, but the debate reminds me of two aspects of Bradbury's F451. One, obviously, is censorship of great literature. But the second is something that Bradbury has said many times: "You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them." I like to think that this latter point is what has been motivating Gribben.


Robert said...

Hi Phil,

Intrestingly enough Prof. Gribben provided the foreword to The Big Read Alabama Edition of THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER (unabridged, by NewSouth Books 2009). In it he wrote:
"In Chapter VI, discussing folk cures, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn utter deplorably casual references to a word synonymous with black slaves in the American South during the 1840s, "niggers." This word choice demonstrated Twain's commitment in the 1870s to the credo of the emerging American realist movement that demanded accurate reproductions of speech patterns of all social groups and historical periods, but it understandably strikes modern readers as jarring and repulsive. In this case Twain was defintely relying on his memories of early-day Hannibal, because that derogatory label for slaves had already become highly objectionable among educated whites by the 1870s, and the adult narrator had been careful to employ the (then-polite) terms "colored" and "negro" in Chapter I."

I'm not a teacher or parent, but I do worry about ignorance (probably my own more than others). In teaching literature, surely you want to help students think critically, and appreciate the author's intent and perspective, especially books from past eras. And its more than this, books are the closest thing to real time machines and the people (long gone or not) who write them.

I tend to agree with you, by the way.-Robert

Phil said...

Hi Robert,

many thanks for that information. Of course, Twain was a very careful writer, and your Gribben quotation draws attention to a very clear distinction in tone that Twain was able to adopt.

- Phil