When I first read about the new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which will excise all instances of “n—–” and replace it with “slave,” I thought, “That’s lame.” That was a couple days ago. I was a little pre-occupied with some other stuff. This morning I have showered and unloaded the dishwasher and eaten breakfast and my five-year-old is still asleep, so I’m thinking, “What shall I blog about?” and what’s on my mind is this lame publishing company that thinks it can write a better version of Huckleberry Finn than Mark Twain did.
Now, it’s not as though the original version of Huckleberry Finn is going to be phased out or something. This is just an alternate edition, kind of like an abridged version of a really-long-novel-that-doesn’t-really-need-to-be-that-long (does it? because I’m a little short on time). And in the words of Keith Staskiewicz, who wrote the EW article linked above,
The original product is changed for the benefit of those who, for one reason or another, are not mature enough to handle it, but as long as it doesn’t affect the original, is there a problem?
I think there is a problem. It’s one thing if you want to take “s—” out of Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” for the radio edit–because let’s face it, what does that song even mean? I don’t know. It’s her s—. (And it’s bananas. B-A-N-A-N-A-S.) Not much violence is done to the artistic intent if you replace “s—” with, say, “stuff,” although one might well argue that “stuff” isn’t quite as musical as the other. But I digress. We’re not talking about a pop song that half of you reading don’t even remember and the other half of you might be angry with me for putting in your brain because now it’s going to be stuck there all day. Am I sorry? No, because I was making a point, which is that we’re talking about the seminal American novel that everyone has to read at some point in his or her education because it’s important. And if you change the language in which it was originally written, it’s not like an abridgement–it’s like a bad translation that fails to capture the essence and intent of the original. It is an inferior product.
“Nigger” is not interchangeable with “slave.” If it were, “nigger” would not be offensive, or “slave” would be spelled “s—-.” (Not to be confused with “s—.”) “N—–” has a connotation that goes way beyond “slave.” A black person wasn’t called a “n—–” because he was a slave; he was called a “n—–” because of white racism. White racism justified black slavery, but beyond that, even black people who were technically free were not equal under the law or in society. Replacing “n—–” with “slave” not only screws with the novel’s voice , but it severely diminishes Twain’s anti-racism message. Good golly Miss Molly, this is like Huck Finn for second graders–I feel ridiculous having to spell this out on a blog post intended for grown-ups, but it wasn’t second-graders who censored Huckleberry Finn; it was well-intentioned adults who ostensibly care about bringing a literary classic to a wider audience.
But these well-intentioned adults are missing the point. If you are too immature to handle the N-word in historical and literary context, you are too immature to appreciate Huckleberry Finn. You may as well just watch the TV movie starring Ron Howard and Donny Most because the finer points of the novel will be lost on you.
As I said in my tiny-rant on the Facebook this morning–oh, how I hate to repeat things I’ve already said on FB, but I only have so many original thoughts–it’s like taking out the “F— You” in Catcher in the Rye and replacing it with “Go jump in a lake.” Say what you will about the literary merits or moral value of Catcher in the Rye, but such a Bowdlerization would render that climactic scene fairly meaningless. Writers choose their words carefully. (Even I choose my words carefully, sometimes.) Because writers know that words matter. How you use words matters. When you use certain words instead of others matters. That’s why we have writers and why we have censors. There are times when putting things a bit more delicately is appropriate, or at least benign. It is not appropriate or benign to re-write Mark Twain.
I think I understand how offensive the N-word is. I move in circles where there is very little vulgarity spoken aloud. I find the F-word extremely jarring when it is spoken aloud, but if someone said the F-word in front of me, I would be merely jarred–as opposed to if someone said the N-word in front of me, in which case I would be horrified. Because the N-word has connotations that are beyond vulgar or offensive. That is why it’s so important that the N-word stay out of our polite discourse but stay in Huckleberry Finn. It does us no good to pretend that the word wasn’t commonly used in the nineteenth-century South or that it doesn’t have a history the pre-dates rap music.
I’ve been known to protect my children from a lot of things I consider vulgar and offensive. (I won’t let them watch America’s Got Talent, for example.) Our house is the Euphemism Capital of Suburban Portland. But my children are going to read the real Huckleberry Finn, if they’re going to read it at all. Anything less would be unacceptable.
Krusty the Clown: Now, boys, the network has a problem with some of your lyrics. Do you mind changing them for the show?
Anthony Kiedis: Forget you, clown.
Chad Smith: Yeah, our lyrics are like our children, man. No way.
Krusty the Clown: Well, okay, but here where it says, “What I got you gotta get and put it in ya,” how about just, “What I’d like is I’d like to hug and kiss ya.”
Flea: Wow. That’s much better.
Arik Marshall: Everyone can enjoy that.