Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Hemingway is next

A new sanitized edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn will be published in a $24.95 hardcover next month, and according to Publishers Weekly it “eliminates the ‘n’ word” (h/t: Abe Greenwald at Contentions).

Alan Gribben of Auburn University, editor of the squeamish new version, says that the word nigger, which appears over two hundred times in the novel, will be replaced by the word slave. I am trying to imagine the scene in which Huck, pretending to be his friend Tom, is greeted by Aunt Sally. She asks why he was delayed. Did the steamboat “get aground”? Huck explains:

     “It warn’t the grounding—that didn't keep us back but a little. We blowed out a cylinder-head.”
     “Good gracious! anybody hurt?”
     “No’m. Killed a slave.”
So much for Twain’s irony. “I’m hoping that people will welcome this new option,” Gribben says, “but I suspect that textual purists will be horrified.”

Not only textual purists. What is far more horrifying to contemplate is how anyone who studies the novel in “the new classroom,” where Gribben says the author’s intended version is “really not acceptable,” can possibly hope to understand Huckleberry Finn. Twain’s point in the novel is that human “sivilization” (including the institution of slavery) is little more than legalized violence. The only true freedom lies outside “sivilization” altogether, which is why, in the last sentences of the book, Huck decides to “light out for the [Indian] Territory ahead of the rest”—that is, decides to flee human contact altogether.

Man, as Twain wrote in an essay published posthumously in Letters from the Earth, is “the lowest animal.” But white men in the South considered black men to be subhuman. Just that is what the word nigger signifies. To Twain, such a slur is the highest conceivable praise. To be beneath humanity is to be an animal that, unlike man, does not go forth in cold blood and with calm pulse to exterminate its kind.

And which character in the novel does this describe? Which character risks capture and reenslavement to stand by his friend, who is wounded in the stylish and romantic pretense of “steal[ing] that nigger out of slavery”? Although Tom Sawyer holds the copyright on the word moral in the novel, the only character who exhibits the qualities that moralists contend they prize is Jim. For a misanthrope like Twain, Jim is admirable precisely because he is not a man but, um, er, a slave.[1] (If you can’t hear that the word nigger secures Twain’s anthropology, to a degree that “slave” fails to, then you probably should read the book in “the new classroom” under a teacher like Alan Gribben who prefers current moral fashions to the impervious and troublesome facts of literature from the past.)

Hemingway’s Sun Also Rises is surely next. Robert Cohn is described as acting “superior and Jewish.” The new edition will describe him, I guess, as superior and religious.

[1] To substitute the word slave is untrue to Twain’s entire way of thinking. “Man is the only slave,” Twain wrote around 1896. “And he is the only animal who enslaves. He has always been a slave in one form or another, and has always held other slaves in bondage under him in one way or another” (Letters from the Earth, ed. Bernard DeVoto [Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett, 1963], p. 179). To call Jim a slave is to fail to distinguish him from the other men in the novel.


Unknown said...

You are absolutely right. Taking the "n word" out undercuts Twain's critique of a society that comes up with such a word. Ironically, the new edition whitewashes not Twain's but the South's sins.

Martin said...

"The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—'tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning." -- Mark Twain

Paul Strassfield, Ph.D., LCSW, PLLC, (Retired)/WRITER said...

Dear Professor Myers, I check in on your blog weekly, and this post is one of the best. I appreciate it because it makes the argument clear, and I learned more about the subject than I previously knew. It also speaks to our cultural state. We're in trouble when we make these textual changes. Thanks, Paul Strassfield

D. G. Myers said...

You are more than welcome, Paul, and thanks back at you for the unmerited praise. I develop my interpretation of Huckleberry Finn here and here.

Mookse said...

What an ugly way to santize the classroom and make it sterile. I am afraid this edition will become the preferred text in classrooms across America as parents get involved. And then what texts will be next? Why teach literature if it is only to hold a mirror up to our own moral fashions?

Chris Matarazzo said...

Well done, sir. I couldn't have said it better myself. In fact, I didn't.

Lee said...

After we finish sanitising death and language, what's left?

D. G. Myers said...


Then comes religion. The wait may not even be too long.


Pete said...

The word change also negates the meaning of that quoted passage. Twain's original implication is that, to the speakers, the killing of a black person was no big deal (since the less enlightened thought blacks were subhuman). But changing the word to "slave" makes the passage into nonsense because to slaveholders and others, killing a slave was a very big deal - not because the slave was human, but because it destroyed a valuable piece of property.

I never use the n-word myself, but it was common speech in Twain's day, and thus its inclusion in the text is an accurate representation of the era. It's simply unfair to impose our modern standards on any 150-year-old work.

D. G. Myers said...


A sharp observation. I agree with everything you say about the word nigger up until “it was common speech in Twain’s day, and thus its inclusion in the text is an accurate representation of the era.”

In plain fact, it was a recognizable and notorious slur, even in Twain’s day (already by 1819, a British traveler to these shores was saying that “Contempt of the poor blacks, or niggers, as they are called, seems the national sin of America”), and it is used in the novel with the full consciousness, not that it was “common speech,” but that it was a common slur.

To eliminate it from the novel betokens little more than a self-righteous refusal to think about what Twain is actually saying.

D said...

If Twain had wanted to use the word "slave" he would have written "slave."

Now if they were going to censor something they should have just edited out Tom Sawyer's appearance completely. Just kidding.

PMH said...

As always, the students must just shake their heads at their professors' ham-fisted attempts at social engineering, infantilization, self-empowerment.

courtney said...

While I understand PMH's point, I am more concerned that with each new dumbing down of literature, fewer and fewer students will realize they ought to shake their heads.

Dianne said...

I fear the same thing Courtney does. But I hope that maybe at least some students, once they find out that their version of the text has been "sanitized," get excited about outing their prissy teachers' pathetic attempts to protect them by reading the original.

Kind of the same process as when, say, a politician or celebrity goes into high dudgeon about something scandalous that's been published about them, thereby ensuring that many more people will read the thing than would have if they'd just kept their mouth shut. Know what I mean?

There's still no excuse for changing the text, but maybe at least this kind of subversive reaction might bring some good out of it.

Oh how I wish Twain were here to say what he thinks about Gribben's edition. Wouldn't that be fun?