Is Selectively Altering Great Works of Literature Really So Bad?

The other day, publishing house NewSouth announced that there would be a new version of Huck Finn which would excise all mentions of the terms "nigger" and "injun," substituting less offensive words in their stead.

Mary Elizabeth Williams over at Salon (via Malik) has a really measured and thoughtful response to the issue:

So why shouldn't New South produce a slurless version of the book? Publishers abridge classic works to suit the reading and maturity levels of different audiences all the time. And if a youngster can thrill to the adventures of the boy Huck and runaway slave Jim without the upsetting presence of unrepeatable words, is that a bad thing?

...The unease that many contemporary readers feel when facing Twain's characters is natural and appropriate. It's certainly something to be keenly attuned to, especially when introducing the book to children. I have a tough time imagining my kids sharing the experience of reading the words "Jim had an uncommon level head, for a nigger" with their fellow students in school, let alone saying them out loud in their classrooms. I sure as hell wouldn't envy the teacher whose job it was to steer the discussion afterward. And it's not as if Twain's original version is going away. New South is simply giving educators and other readers the option of enjoying Twain's work without tripping over a derogatory term, especially one coming from its hero.

Meanwhile, Benedicte Page at the Guardian has written up a good overview of the response to the decision. Check out Sarah Churchwell's reaction:

[T]he idea of changing the language in the novel in order to boost its popularity is still viewed with bafflement in many quarters. Dr Sarah Churchwell, senior lecturer in US literature and culture at the University of East Anglia, said the development made her "incandescent" with anger. "The fault lies with the teaching, not the book. You can't say 'I'll change Dickens so it is compatible with my teaching method'. Twain's books are not just literary documents but historical documents, and that word is totemic because it encodes all of the violence of slavery. The point of the book is that Huckleberry Finn starts out racist in a racist society, and stops being racist and leaves that society. These changes mean the book ceases to show the moral development of his character. They have no merit and are misleading to readers. The whole point of literature is to expose us to different ideas and different eras, and they won't always be nice and benign. It's dumbing down."

Education and curriculum development are challenging and complex issues. That being said, if you're going to teach one of the great works of literature, why not teach it in its unfettered form? And why not address the historical context of these racially loaded terms WHEN you're teaching it? Why else do we have an educational system, if not to address issues that students will encounter in their lives and for the rest of their lives?

Williams herself acknowledges the transformative power that creative teachers can have on the minds of children, when she describes a classroom activity in which her daughter learned, first-hand, the division inflicted on regular citizens during the Jim Crow era.

The problem is that many teachers don't have the wherewithal to address the issue with subtlety, illumination and/or grace. And many students may not have the desire or maturity to learn the history of words like "nigger" and interpret occurrences of the term in their proper context. Williams continues, eloquently:

It's a tough task to invite readers to think. It's far more difficult than handing someone a book, worry-free, and saying, enjoy yourself some Norton Juster! It requires exhausting amounts of work, deep wells of compassion, and an open acknowledgment that our acceptance of a work and its author's intent will be considerably affected by our own race, religion, gender and sexual identity.

But just because it's hard doesn't mean we should accept censorship as a solution. Or that intellectual laziness should be catered to. The problem here lies not with the term's appearance in the book, or even with NewSouth's decision to "whitewash" it. It's with a society that will accept laziness on the part of its Educators (with a capital "e"), whether they are teachers in schools or parents at home.

[UPDATE: Now The New York Times wants a turn:

We are horrified, and we think most readers, textual purists or not, will be horrified too. The trouble isn’t merely adulterating Twain’s text. It’s also adulterating social, economic and linguistic history. Substituting the word “slave” makes it sound as though all the offense lies in the “n-word” and has nothing to do with the institution of slavery. Worse, it suggests that understanding the truth of the past corrupts modern readers, when, in fact, this new edition is busy corrupting the past.

Strong words, and sharp wordplay. But maybe both are warranted.]

4 comments :: Is Selectively Altering Great Works of Literature Really So Bad?

  1. The problem with censoring the book is that it is not a simple adventure story. The book is so much more. It is a broad social commentary, and the original language needs to be preserved in order for people to understand it. If you're too young to understand Twain's language choice with the guidance of your teacher, you're simply too young to read the book.

    I had to read Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience" in 8th grade. I understood the basic premise of the work, but I didn't fully appreciate it until I read it again years later. Children shouldn't read Huckleberry Finn for it's adventurous aspects; they should read it for Twain's real purpose: understanding society at that point in time. My 8th grade teacher had us read Huckleberry Finn, and she had us read it uncensored. We got so much more out of it. While I didn't fully grasp the implications then, it helped me, at the very least, understand the basic ideas behind the writing.

  2. I'd have to agree with the first post. To me this is no different then Texas removing Thomas Jefferson from the history books (bc of his stance on separation of church and state) because it "makes it better." or a change from "slave trade" to "triangle trade." cleaning up books makes a big difference because the it is a snapshot of society when that book was written. We should know where we came from as a society in order to see how and why we changed. Sugar coating or censoring the past could have bad consequences, not necessarily for the present, but in the future.

  3. I just stumbled upon this and wanted to say thank you so so much for really getting what I saying in my piece -- and expanding on it so eloquently. Well done.

  4. First of all, I'm excited about how social media has allowed the positive exchange of ideas between Dave and Mary.

    Secondly, I want to address Dave's comment: "The problem is that many teachers don't have the wherewithal to address the issue with subtlety, illumination and/or grace."

    I'd also add that many teachers, even if they did have such wherewithal are in environments where parents and schools would not allow them to do so. Not only the word but the very conversations about race are so incendiary that many parents would make a stink to the heavens about it occurring, while administrators would avoid such possibilities if they can.

    And, frankly, I can't blame them. The lawsuits and media firestorms that teachers and schools are afraid of from making a misstep in this area are such a cooling effect and THAT'S perhaps the biggest reasons why the book isn't being taught at lots of schools nationally.

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