Saturday, January 8, 2011

Does Mark Twain really need to be edited?

I suppose you've heard that a new edition of the classic book by Missouri author Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, will be expunged of a couple of words that have become politically incorrect.

One is "nigger," which is used to describe Huck's black/Negro/African-American traveling companion, Jim the slave.

The other is "injun," used primarily to desribe the villain, Injun Joe.

Ozarks First, which is Springfield channel 10, has a report on the reaction of Ozarkers. Here are some excerpts:

While Twain's message has stood the test of time, his language is being tested. When opening the classic novel, one word jumps off the page: the "n" word.
"I hate this word with a passion," says Nixa junior Musa Moss. "It shouldn't be in there."
"Wow, people actually did say this," adds junior Kendall Barclay.It's repeated an astonishing 219 times.
"It feels like you're with Huck," says Barclay. "The whole time. The way Huck talks to you, personally talking to you."
"If they are uncomfortable to hear that word, it's actually a good sign," says Nixa English teacher Sheila Long. "It should be uncomfortable to hear that word repeated so much."
In a re-print due out next month, Publisher Newsouth Books replaced the offensive "n" word with "slave."
The company's hoping to express Mark Twain's 19th Century message in 21st Century language.
"It's better to have the novel taught and be censored than not taught at all, because it's such an important book," says Long.
"Maybe if they want to start with this version and then see the original, then that's good," says Dr. Resa Willis, an English professor at Drury University.

First of all, I find it confusing that the company wants to update the language from the 19th Century to the 21st Century. If that's truly the motive, shouldn't the publisher substitute "nigga" for "nigger." That seems to be the more modern, truly "hip" word to use.

Second, I find it pretty disappointing, but not surprising, that a high school English teacher and a university professor both find it acceptable that the censoring of Twain is a good thing. Even though Ernest Hemingway was impressed with Twain's Finn, I suspect we're seeing the beginning of the end of teaching Twain.

Now, I'm not in favor of going around using what Ozarks First calls "the n-word," so don't try to make me out as a racist. But I'm also not in favor of changing the words of a classic around because people are too sensitive and have no sense of history.

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