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Defending the Huckleberry Revisionism

Cross posted at Deschamps and Dagblog.

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Over the night, a great deal of controversy exploded over the revising by New South Books of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The frequent use of the epithet “nigger,” which appears 219 times, is edited out and replaced with “slave. “independent Some of the most belligerent animosity came from Michael Moynihan, the gifted writer and editor at Reason Magazine:

Don’t read Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop or Black Mischief (colonialist and racist); toss the reactionary and sexist Kingsley Amis on to the fire (probably shouldn’t read Girl-20; definitely shouldn’t read Stanley and the Women); and simply pulp the entire back catalog of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series, which manages to offend every minority group, every country, every-not-an-Englishman on virtually every page.

There is serious outrage on the part of Moynihan, not a characteristic of most of his work. It’s a bit reactionary but understandable. A Southern friend of mine, Will Pierce, who appears sometimes on podcasts for Gonzo Times, was equally outraged by this. It all made me think that Twain has a very emotional attachment for many people, especially in the south but certainly not regulated to that region. I’m of Southern and Middle American descent and when I ran it by my mom, a person who would toss someone out the window if they omitted the word “nigger,” she said that it “takes away” from the relevance and impact of the word.

My own viewpoint on this is interesting. I grew up on hip-hop, and just rappers that should appeal to me like Eminem or the Beastie Boys. Over the years, I swallowed up Wu-Tang Clan (and all of their solo stuff), Jay-Z, Nas, 50 Cent and Kool Keith.

As I’ve become an adult, however, “nigger” and the more friendly “nigga” have disgusted me more and more. I still listen to some hip-hop but my library tends towards white, Filipino, and rappers of not African American backgrounds simply because, admittedly, once you’ve stepped inside the ghettoes of Washington D.C. or met older black men whose lives were malted with racial derision, you can’t stand to hear the word anymore unless you lack some sort of compassion or have simply become numb. I no longer really think that black comedians and rappers are empowering themselves by redefining the word but just transforming into a new sort of oppressive usage.

That’s not to say the original text should be banned from us. New South Books is publishing their book independently for educational use. This isn’t an order from Obama’s Department of Education. I have copies of the N-word heavy book on my shelf still and am pretty sure Homeland Security will not take them away.

Likewise, comic book adaptations like Classics Illustrated or the PBS series Wishbone, which featured a dog in roles such as Don Quixote and Rip Van Winkel, have veered away from strict adherence to the text in presenting them to new audiences.

Here is New South’s explanation of their book in full:

A new edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, forthcoming from NewSouth Books in mid-February, does more than unite the companion boy books in one volume, as the author had intended. It does more even than restore a passage from the Huckleberry Finnmanuscript that first appeared in Twain’s Life on the Mississippi and was subsequently cut from the work upon publication.

In a bold move compassionately advocated by Twain scholar Dr. Alan Gribben and embraced by NewSouth, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn also replaces two hurtful epithets that appear hundreds of times in the texts with less offensive words, this intended to counter the “preemptive censorship” that Dr. Gribben observes has caused these important works of literature to fall off curriculum lists nationwide.

In presenting his rationale for publication, eloquently developed in the book’s introduction, Dr. Gribben discusses the context of the racial slurs Twain used in these books. He also remarks on the irony of the fact that use of such language has caused Twain’s books to join the ranks of outdated literary classics Twain once humorously defined as works “which people praise and don’t read.”

At NewSouth, we saw the value in an edition that would help the works find new readers. If the publication sparks good debate about how language impacts learning or about the nature of censorship or the way in which racial slurs exercise their baneful influence, then our mission in publishing this new edition of Twain’s works will be more emphatically fulfilled.

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Michael Orion Powell

Michael Orion Powell

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