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Huck Finn goes PC                                                                                     Print this essay

Posted at: Jan/05/2011 : Posted by: mel

Related Category: My philosophy,

Have you heard the news, two scholars are editing Mark Twain's classic “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” to eliminate uses of the "N-word” (nigger) and replace it with "slave." Their argument for this is that they want to publish a version that won't be banned from some schools because of its language. This new edition being published by NewSouth Books, will also shorten a fairly detailed and offensive reference to Native Americans.

I should be very clear, English and Literature classes were considered punishment by me when I was going through Junior High and High School. I do remember that unlike Homer’s Odyssey or Beowulf, I actually enjoyed reading Huck Finn. I suppose at that age it is much easier to relate to a leading character that was about my own age at the time. For many decades now, “Huckleberry Finn” has been disappearing from school curricula across the country, often times it has been banned outright from even being in school libraries.

Whether it is a concern over Political Correctness (PC), or the pressures of some minority community group, the results are the same. Shortly after I graduated high school my father sent me a newspaper article cut out of the home town paper talking about how my school district has just removed Huckleberry Finn from the curricula and from the library shelves. I remember the article because this action was taken after a fundamentalist religious group successfully argued to the school board that there was implied homo-sexuality in the story. I know, it is like those people who stare at fruit and swear to seeing divine images…I guess that if you really want to see it, then you will.

There is nothing like a good controversy to spur sales. After reading the article my father sent me, I went right out and bought a copy so I could read the story again. Being older I got quite a bit more out of the story.

Just in case you've never read the book, the character Jim (a runaway Slave) is referred to by the "N-Word" throughout the book. Native Americans are also referred to as "Injuns". In case you like to be overwhelmed by useless details I am told there are 219 instances of the offensive term in the original text. Publishing the politically correct edits that are being proposed is in my view simply a "whitewash" of an American Classic.

Huckleberry Finn does not represent the current 21st Century attitudes towards blacks or Native Americans and it was never intended to. It was written by Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) in 1884 as a representation of the attitudes which existed in the Pre-Civil War South. When read and understood in the context of its time the book mocks the racist attitudes of the Whites in the book. Seldom can a story stay timely for 130 years so it really does not surprise me and should not surprise anyone that the story and its use of words is different now than when first published. As a minimum, reading Huckleberry Finn gives an interesting view into an era long past.

Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is considered a classic by most. T.S. Eliot called it a masterpiece, and Ernest Hemingway pronounced it the source of “all modern American literature.” However, it has been disappearing from school curricula across the country for years because of its usage of the word “nigger” or other perceived issues of social and political incorrectness.

Rewriting Huckleberry Finn to remove the n-word is essentially rewriting or censoring history. The first time I read the novel, I was probably about 14 years old, I don’t really recall being especially struck by the fact that the word appeared as often as it does. I eventually learned that at the time that the novel is supposed to have taken place, the n-word was as common as the word slave is today. While we're at it, I have to ask, doesn’t the word slave have as ugly a connotation as the term nigger, so what difference is really being made? I suppose if the word is replaced and more people read the book that is probably a good thing. I still have a problem with selectively rewriting a classic to fit within evolving social norms. While we are in the rewriting mode there is a lot that could be changed in the bible, the U.S. Constitution and the Koran to eliminate controversy. Think of how much easier Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address would be to read if we replaced “four score and seven” with “eighty-seven”. I know; while we have the marking pen out, let’s take the Holocaust out of Anne Frank's diary as well, lots of people are offended at any mention of that. I was reminded today that for the sake of political correctness we should take “hell” out of Dante’s Inferno and use “a really hot place.”

Shouldn’t these so-called Twain scholars know why the epithets are there in the first place. They are there to show the stupidity of racism! It has been a while since I read Huck Finn, but this controversy inspired me to read it again. In my reread l came to realize that Twain uses these epithets such as “nigger” and “injun” in connection with certain characters who have less than questionable moral character, in the same way that Mel Brooks lampooned racism in "Blazing Saddles." In our own lives isn’t it always the bigots and slanders who use the worst slurs in their language? Jim is the first black man in American literature that to my knowledge is portrayed as a “man”. He has a soul and a family and is willing to do all he can to help his friends. Huck himself (due to his naive take on the world, fostered by the society of pre-Civil War America - when the story takes place), is guilty of racism because that is all he knows. He believes that not having a slave is a sin. When he comes to terms with the fact that Jim is a man and says that he would rather go to hell than give up his friend, it is a turning point in the novel and in American Literature! Twain also uses the epithets in such abundance that the word essentially becomes a cliché. By the end of my reread of Huck Finn I had actually become quite tired of seeing the word and at this point I really don’t want to see it again. That is most likely the real genius to Twain’s work.... I thought I was reading a fun story and ended out being taught a moral lesson. Without even knowing it, the book, by humanizing Jim and exposing the fallacies of the racist assumptions of slavery, and is effectively an ATTACK on racism and small minds.

Lastly I really need to bring up the question of pop culture. If saying nigger is not only politically incorrect, but also socially wrong and generally offensive…why is it so prevalent in rap music?

Ultimately, changing anything about published stories or songs because the text by current standards is considered offensive is wrong. Language and word usage is continually evolving. Leaving the words as originally put down honors the author and gives an insight into a different era. Times change, but we need to be flexible and see the words in the content and times that they were written. Are these guy really “scholars,”…lord help us I can’t even guess what will be next!

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David Bly
Striving for success without hard work is like trying to harvest where you haven't planted.
 
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