Cleansing Twain

Mark Twain

Yesterday in a Facebook exchange with a friendly acquaintance, Cassaundra Adler, I got caught up in a discussion about what it means that a publisher has sanitized Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”–perhaps the single most important American novel ever written–by ridding it the n-word.

The character Jim will henceforth be referred to not as “N–r Jim,” but as “Slave Jim.”

There is a lot of talk about it today, some defending the move as a means of allowing the book to be used in classrooms. Others condemn it, focusing the implications of this publisher propagating the idea that “slave” is somehow the more acceptable, polite and honorable term.

Here’s what I told Cassuandra and the other folks engaged in the Facebook discussion (I will only post my own thoughts because the conversation was conducted on Cassaundra’s private page):

“It’s not even a mistake. It’s idiocy. Twain used the idiom of his time, and that’s objectionable today–as it surely ought to be. It’s a blot on our record as a nation that the word was used so freely by one of the best people of his era. But do we really want to forget that? Do we want to erase the casual reality of racism in our history? Twain was the first writer in America to treat a black man as a three-dimensional human being and to portray in starkly human terms the steep cost that both races paid because of the racism of his day. And yet, without fully knowing it, he fell so far short. We need to remember the implications of that….”

Jamelle Bouie at The Atlantic has a similar take:

“….erasing “n–r” from Huckleberry Finn—or ignoring our failures—doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t provide racial enlightenment, or justice, and it won’t shield anyone from the legacy of slavery and racial discrimination. All it does is feed the American aversion to history and reflection. Which is a shame. If there’s anything great about this country, it’s in our ability to account for and overcome our mistakes. Peddling whitewashed ignorance diminishes America as much as it does our intellect.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates goes farther:

“Because we can’t handle the story of who we were, and evidently who we are, Twain must be summoned up from the dead and, all against himself, submitted before the edits of amateurs.This is our system of fast-food education laid bare: Children are roaming the halls singing “Sexy Bitch,” while their neo-Confederate parents are plotting to chop the penis off Michelangelo’s David, and clamoring for Gatsby and Daisy to be reunited.

“Let us all live in a world of warm snugglies. Let the air-conditioning anesthesia sprawl free. May the flowers of happiness multiply out. May Mark Twain’s ghost haunt us all.”

While we’re at it, we might as well furnish access to publisher Alan Gribben’s justification for what he has done, which includes this little granule of crystal ball gazing:

“As a notoriously commercial writer who watched for every opportunity to enlarge the mass market for his works, he presumably would have been quick to adapt his language if he could have foreseen how today’s audiences recoil at racial slurs in a culturally altered country.”

The good doctor seems to have lost sight of the fact that his expertise in all matters Twain does not actually give him access to the man’s mind.


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