Since I first commented on it, Professor Alan Gribben’s edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been condemned from all sides. I have found not a single voice raised in its defense. If I did not believe that he deserved as much notoriety as Dr Thomas Bowdler—if I did not believe that the verb to Gribbenize was a deserving addition to the critical lexicon to characterize the editing of texts and speech for the sake of bringing them in line with political correctness—I would almost feel sorry for the man.
I do feel sorry for his critics, who cannot seem to understand why the Gribbenized Huck has them so worked up. In the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, for example, columnist Tony Norman called it “linguistically and morally incoherent.” His standards are not literary, however. Stoutly maintaining that Huckleberry Finn “holds a mirror to our times just as it did Twain’s,” Norman says:
In the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani agrees that the Gribbenizing of the novel is similar to “the politically correct efforts in the ’80s to exile great authors like Conrad and Melville from the canon because their work does not feature enough women or projects colonialist attitudes.” But she goes farther, sounding as if Huckleberry Finn is holy writ:
That’s the thing. Both the Gribbenized edition of Huckleberry Finn and the self-righteous condemnation of it are founded on the same premise. Both are distempered by the exaggeration of isolated words, while ignoring the novel’s complex word-system of meaning. On one side, the word nigger (and to a lesser extent the word Injun) are unacceptable under any circumstances; on the other, the words are “sacrosanct” because they are Twain’s or because they are “subversive.”
Yet Twain’s meaning can prove elusive, especially for those who are concerned to make it seem less offensive than it is. Thus Rich Lowry, the editor of the National Review, rightly focuses on the novel’s meaning, but gets it upside down. The meaning he disseminates is earnest and poignant, but the meaning is not Twain’s:
And as for conscience! Huck is alert to its message, because he knows that what he is doing in assisting a runaway slave is immoral. As they float down the river, searching for the lights of Cairo, Jim remarks that he is “all over trembly and feverish to be so close to freedom.” Huck comes to with a start:
To be fair to Lowry, even Francine Prose—of whom I am acknowledged to be the World’s Biggest Fan—falls into the same error. In a New York Times symposium on whether “word changes alter Huckleberry Finn,” she says that the novel “portray[s] the mind of a young person trying to develop a moral conscience.” No, it doesn’t. It portrays the hopeless quest to escape from conscience and the rest of sivilization’s trappings altogether. As a novelist herself, Prose is merely rewriting Twain’s novel in the language that she would have written it in. And though she describes the sin of Gribbenizing better than anyone I have read (“If language is a bridge connecting us to the mind of the writer and the historical moment he is describing, then to tinker with that language—for whatever well-intentioned reasons—undermines not only the design but the solidity of that bridge”), she misses something far more important than language and historical moment.
A great novel is a disturbing comprehensive vision of the human experience. It persuades you, for a while, to watch the human parade from a weirdly angled window—to consider human life under the aspect, not of eternity, but of an odd and assertive particularity. This is what it means for a novel to be truly great: it changes your life. But not in any trivial self-improvement fashion. For a long time thereafter—if not forever—it affects the tone of every human encounter, the symbolism of every human gesture, the legitimacy of every human feeling. Even if you reject the great novelist’s vision, you are unable to shake the influence that it has upon the way that you view human actions.
No one who reads Huckleberry Finn can ever again use words like “nigger,” “humane,” “moral,” or “conscience” in the same way. And in that sense, Alan Gribben and his critics belong to the same fraternity of the fundamentally unchanged.