Sunday, January 09, 2011

"Betwixt two things": why the Bowdlerization of Huckleberry Finn hurts American literature and society

NOTE: If you are easily offended by bad words, proceed with caution.
It was a close place. I took [the paper] up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

"All right, then, I'll GO to hell" -- and tore it up.
--from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
by Mark Twain
I was raised in a household where racist epithets were forbidden. From the time I was tiny, I was taught that words used to refer to someone's race or national origin in a derogatory way were wrong, and that I would get in big trouble with my parents if I ever used them, in or out of their hearing.

There was a reason for it, of course. My parents were part of a generation that truly believed in and championed the phrase "all men are created equal." Their own parents -- products of their time, just as we are products of ours -- harbored a number of ideas colored by prejudice. My maternal grandfather, who had fought in World War II, was deeply distrustful of all Asians, but especially of Japanese people; my paternal grandmother, who had been raised in the South, carried the belief that whites were superior to all other races. To their credit, Mom and Dad did not want to perpetuate these beliefs in the next generation. And so, as part of their teaching and with the idea that the use of negative words engenders negative attitudes, they never used racist epithets themselves and forbade us to use them, just as they forbade swearing and obscenity in our home.

During my teens, I was appalled to hear one of my high school classmates refer casually to "that little nigger boy" who was featured in a popular commercial. She seemed oblivious to the offensiveness of the word she had chosen, so I gave her a verbal dressing-down, telling her that word was unacceptable and she was never to use it in my presence again. She seemed more annoyed with me than abashed at her word choice, but I really didn't care. The word was wrong, and I knew it was wrong, and I couldn't hold my peace and let it be used while I was in earshot.

A few days ago I read that publisher NewSouth Books intends to release an omnibus volume of two Mark Twain novels, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in February -- but with a twist. Noting the many times that Huck Finn has been banned in schools due to its repeated use of a racist epithet, NewSouth has edited the texts to remove "the N-word" and replace it with the word "slave"; likewise, the epithet "Injun" has been edited and replaced with the presumably less-offensive "Indian." These changes, they believe, will make Huck Finn acceptable in schools again and allow it to resume its rightful place in the Western canon.

I hate "the N-word." It's an ugly, vile word, and I flinch when I hear it used. And yet I am dead set against these editorial changes. In my opinion, nothing could be more stupid than to modify Twain's words.

Why? What would propel me to defend this position, knowing how much I despise the use of racist epithets in general and this one in particular?

As with most such questions, there's more than one good answer.

First, I happen to believe that Bowdlerization -- alteration or expurgation of a work in order to make it more suitable to a specific audience -- is harmful to classic literature. (If you're unfamiliar with the word's origins, you might want to take a quick gander at the Thomas Bowdler article on Wikipedia.) Though most previous attempts to clean up the classics were, like the NewSouth version of Huck Finn, made with the best of intentions, they often did more harm than good. Editing a classic book to make it more palatable to modern readers is a bit like painting eyebrows on the Mona Lisa to give her more character; not only is it a jaw-droppingly presumptuous act, but it does great and potentially irreparable damage to the original work. In any case, book editors do not have a great track record of being able to discern an author's intent; perhaps editors should adopt the Hippocratic oath of "First, do no harm."

Huck Finn is, among other things, an example of American historical fiction, and a number of commentators have pointed out that Twain deliberately set out to write Huck Finn as a product of his time and place. In that time and that place, a poor uneducated boy such as Huck would probably use non-standard English, and he does. Huck almost always says "knowed" instead of "knew," "ain't" instead of "isn't" and "warn't" instead of "weren't" -- and he uses the word "nigger" instead of "Negro," the more respectful term of that time. The use of this word in the antebellum South is a simple fact, as honest as Twain's recognition of the common practice of slavery itself. It is of a piece with the rest of Huck's dialect, and it hardly makes sense to clean this language up when Twain took such pains to make each character's dialect as historically accurate as possible (he even took the time to write an explanatory note in the preface about the dialects used in the book).

There are a number of other attempts to explain why changing racist language in Huck Finn would be a bad idea, but to my mind they all pale in comparison to the epiphany I had when I came across a particular passage near the end of the book. Huck has made it to Tom's Aunt Sally's house and is trying to come up with an excuse why his boat was delayed:
"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 nigger."

"Well, it's lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt...."
When I read this passage, I felt sick to my stomach. I had finally gained a deeper understanding of why my parents had not allowed that word to be spoken in their home. Aunt Sally -- a character portrayed as sweet, gracious, loving, and the perfect example of Southern hospitality, a Christian woman and the wife of a preacher -- is able to blithely ignore the death of a fellow human being, treating the event with the same unconcern she might have for the death of a dog or a chicken, merely because Huck used the word "nigger" instead of "man." The epithet is evil because it diminishes the infinite worth of a human life to the near-worthlessness of a beast of burden, and it encourages even the good-hearted people of the story to look upon their fellow humans as disposable objects.

Twain was a master of satire who relished mocking the foibles of his society. In this one passage, Twain takes institutionalized racism and slavery to the woodshed in a way few authors have before or since. And if you substitute the word "nigger" with "slave" in this passage, it loses much of the deliberate knife-twisting Twain must have wanted his readers to feel. Because when you read this book and understand its many satirical jabs and cuts, you also understand that Twain wasn't trying to champion the use of the word he had Huck use so frequently. He was making it clear not only what an ugly word it was, but the lurking evil of casual racism it both signified and engendered in the society that used it.

Nowhere is this made clearer than in Twain's portrayal of Jim, the character to whom "the N-word" is most often attached. Jim is portrayed throughout the book as a complex and compelling man: intelligent, thoughtful, superstitious, funny, courageous and supremely loyal. He has his foibles and is imperfect, but he is also the closest thing to a father figure Huck has, keeping the boy as safe and protected as he can in the course of their journey down the river. This is all the more remarkable when you consider that the life of a runaway slave in the South was forfeit to the merest whims of whites; if the white men around him had decided to kill Jim as a warning to other would-be runaway slaves, the only repercussions to them would have been having to compensate Jim's owner for her monetary loss. So much of this casual cruelty in antebellum Southern society is encapsulated by the use of the word "nigger."

Words mean things, and there is every indication that Twain chose his words carefully. (This is, after all, the same man who wrote, "The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter -- it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.") The word "slave," in this case, is the almost-right word -- and it does about the same thing as choosing to say "lightning bug" when what you really mean, what you really need to say, is "lightning." Yes, the continued use of Twain's original words might continue to make Huckleberry Finn into a lightning-rod of criticism for some time -- but that doesn't mean the answer is to appease the easily offended, some of whom have not read the book, let alone understood its underlying message.

I understand not everyone is going to agree with me. But if we are currently betwixt two things -- sticking to the original text despite criticism and book-banning, or altering the text to pacify those who do not understand it -- then I'm in favor of the former option, even if I do go to hell for it.

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