“Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it” Mark Twain
“It’s the best book we’ve had…All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” Ernest Hemingway
It’s been two months since a “sanitized” version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published by NewSouth books. The editor, Alan Gribben, was quoted in Publishers Weekly as saying that the new, politically correct edition fills a need for teachers who feel they can’t use the book in their classrooms because children might react badly to the N-word. Replacing the slur will be the noun/adjective “slave”, and the slang for Indian (the archaic term for the United States’ first nations), “injun”, will be removed from the book entirely.
What if students want—or need—to hear why the ugly “n-word” was used so pervasively in the novel? What if its use can provide a history lesson for them? What if they need to wrestle with the fact that Huck Finn, a street-smart kid who does use the “n-word”, decides that he will literally “go to hell” if necessary, rather than turn in his friend, the fugitive slave, Jim? Can a boy use offensive language and still act bravely and morally?
So what are we going to do about language that scares or offends us–water every novel down to a pablum? Change the wording and intent of authors? Malcolm X took a shot at lesbians when recounting an old girlfriend in The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Do we sanitize that book? Racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual slurs pepper the works of Ernest Hemingway. Do we clean up the Nobel Laureate?
Authors are products of not only their personal histories, but their cultural histories. To change their words is not only an act of incredible hubris, it is an affront to art. What’s next? Do we start sticking little strips of electric tape to every provocative part of Rubens’ sensual paintings? And let’s not forget music. Let’s start with the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers album cover. Rather than incite our youth, we should ban all overt and covert references to all things offensive: drugs, sex, inequality, violence. But wait…Walmart already does that for us. Whew.
I visited one of Dr. Michael Chesson’s history seminars this week. Around the table, students were discussing the racism that the Chinese people faced in America, particularly in the state of California. Should that shameful fact from our nation’s past be expurgated? Hell no. We need to own our history, and our vocabulary; we need to ask why? and how?—and not try to sugar- coat lessons that all of us need to learn, whether we’re 10 years old or 90 years old.
Mark Twain famously said “When in doubt, tell the truth.” Mark Twain told the truth about the vocabulary that a boy like Huckleberry Finn would hear, assimilate and use. Who is any editor to turn that truth into a lie?