Saturday, January 8, 2011

Censorship of Huckleberry Finn

I have great respect for editing and those who practice the craft.  Those who write for a living and those of us who aspire to depend on editors for so many things, from catching a misplaced modifier, to an illogical plot point, to letting us know that our protagonist had blue eyes in chapter one and brown in chapter thirty.

And that's just the beginning of what good editors do.

There is, however, an ugly beast called censorship, and Auburn professor Alan Gribben, to my mind, has ventured into that territory. I think he means well, but so do most censors.  Remember that the Volstead Act, prohibiting alcohol, brought organized crime to the forefront where it's been ever since.  But we had to protect our kids from the saloons and pool halls and drunken slobs, didn't we?  Hence Prohibition.  Hence Al Capone and all who have followed.

So what has Professor Gribben done?

Censored a classic to make it more "palatable."  Gribben has taken Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and changed the 219 uses of the word "nigger" and replaced it with the word "slave," and changed the colloquial term "Injun" (remember Injun Joe?) to "Indian."

As a white man, I had to take a little time to see whether my knee-jerk reaction was well founded and not insensitive.  I think it is well founded and not insensitive.

Read the book.  I just did in the last few days.  It doesn't take long.

In no way is Twain (pictured) or Huck racist.  In fact, some critics have argued that Huck and Jim are lovers.  I personally thing that's overdoing it a bit, but there is no doubt that Jim is far more of a father and father figure to Huck than that mean, drunken sot of a bastard who actually sired him was.

I read a thoughtful opinion piece from Clarence Page, a member of the Chicago Tribune's editorial board.  Mr. Page, who also happens to be black, writes ...

Besides, making the book less controversial might make it more palatable for many classrooms, but it also risks taking away its edge, the risky subversive power of Twain's words and story that kept my classmates and me awake, alert and talking about it.

And that's the key, to my mind.  Let's talk about it.  In class.  Let's allow our young people to read literature and discuss all of the implications.  That's what literature is supposed to be about, isn't it?  It was when I went to school.  Let's not hide from the time that Twain writes about.  And let's damn sure not censor it.

I read it first (along with Tom Sawyer) when I was in the fifth grade.  Granted we were in the early years of civil rights legislation.  In fact, that was 1968, then year Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated.  We actually discussed Tom and Huck in class, discussing the evils of racism, we called it race prejudice back then, and ways to help all of us understand each other.

A whole bunch of racism was exposed, in society itself, and in the printed word, but not one serious accusation about Twain being racist was made to my knowledge.

I read Huck again as a junior in high school, and then again in college.  We had some lively discussions, I can tell you, but nothing about Twain's choice of words being bad or evil.

I agree with Mr. Page when he writes ...

I would rather see "Huck Finn" restricted to eighth-graders and older than see it shoved out of sight or watered down.

So would I.  Are you listening Professor Gribben?  Or are you hopelessly caught in the PC vortex?  One again, from Mr. Page ...

We should teach youngsters about history, not try to protect them from it.

I couldn't have said it nearly so well or compelling.

Now for a little scattershooting.

First, I weighed in at 265 this morning (Saturday morning).  I feel better, and am looking forward to the day when I can return to the pool and swim real laps.

I can't wait until my trip to San Francisco and the writers conference.

I know I haven't posted on my other blog for awhile, but I'll try to post twice this month to make up for it.

I'll see y'all next week.


  1. I do NOT agree with the decision they made. It pissed me off.
    History is what it is. Don't sugar coat it ( although how ever do you go about sugarcoating 'nigger' and 'slave' )
    Leave well enough alone.
    I don't think you and I are the only ones who feel this way..

  2. I feel that way as well, Rock. I love Mr Page's insightful comments. Huckleberry Finn is a great novel, and by sugarcoating the words, most people will miss the fact that Jim regains his lost dignity through his relationship with Huck.

  3. I can't say it better than you or Jamie and Food Czar above. Some things should be left alone! xo