Sunday, January 30, 2011

As It Stands: 'Huckleberry Finn': Another attempt at compromising a classic

By Dave Stancliff/For the Times-Standard

Posted: 01/30/2011 01:24:10 AM PST

There's no good excuse for rewriting “Huckleberry Finn” to make it politically correct. We might as well say all of our historical literature is fair game then. The Nazis took a shot at re-writing Germanic history. I think we can all agree that vile attempt resulted in the loss of millions of innocent lives.

When people like Alan Gribben, a professor of English at Auburn University at Montgomery, rewrites a classic like “Huckleberry Finn” I get concerned. His sanitized version is coming out in February.

I say sanitized because he replaced the word “nigger” with “slave” 219 times and substituted “Indian” for “injun.” Amazingly, professor Gribben was quoted by AP as saying, “I'm by no means sanitizing Mark Twain.”

The initial print run is reported to be 7,500 copies. So far, no school districts have snatched up this revised edition to spoonfeed to their students. That's a good thing. Still, it starts the year off with a racial controversy. Like Kai Wright, the editorial director for “Colorlines,” recently said, “We've got our first official race flap of 2011 -- and it involves something published in 1884.”

There's no doubt there is racist content in Huckleberry Finn. People have argued for years that Jim's subservient role as a stupid character and some of the language are offensive and should be banned. In September 1957, the New York Times reported the first time “Huckleberry Finn” was banned from the approved textbook lists of elementary and junior highs. It was still taught at the high school level, however.

In 1963, the Philadelphia Board of Education replaced “Huckleberry Finn” with a doctored version that toned down the violence and deleted all derogatory references to Negroes. They also “simplified” the Southern dialect. The administration of the New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois, removed “Huckleberry Finn” from the shelves in 1976 after student protests.

In an excellent article titled “Controversy over N-word in 'Huckleberry Finn' is example of ongoing confusion in American culture” by Stanley Crouch, he challenges those who are concerned with the demeaning and dehumanizing effects of the N-word to look at black culture today.

He contends that the 1980s emergence of gangster rap took away the desire for black youth to study and read. As an example, he points out Thomas Chatterton Williams' memoir of growing up in the black middle class of New Jersey. “Losing My Cool” is Williams' harsh critique of the so-called “Hip Hop” culture.

Crouch contends that Twain's novel, “... N-word and all doesn't shock or even offend those black kids who are trying to connect themselves to the black lower class by carrying themselves like thugs or prostitutes in training.”

His main point is that people should leave “Huckleberry Finn” alone and turn their attention towards the lack of interest in learning among black youth today. He feels the book is a classic and “should not be mottled by well-intentioned stupidity.”

Millie Davis, the anti-censorship representative for the National Council of Teachers of English, said, “Yeah, it's a tough book. Which is an excellent reason for teaching it.”

Michaela Angela Davis, a former fashion editor for Essence magazine, weighed in on the subject during a recent interview: “If a teacher is not prepared to have a social and historical conversation, and place that masterpiece in context, is she prepared to teach that text? Should it be to those students? So, when we get into changing words, un-writing history, rearranging art, we start to put democracy in danger.”

Since “Huckleberry Finn” was first published, controversy has followed it like a faithful dog. It's been criticized, censored, and banned for an array of perceived failings. People have called it obscene and full of coarse manners. It's been slammed for bad grammar and atheism. Critics have claimed it has a low moral tone and is anti-Southern.

Perhaps Mark Twain himself best summed up his use of the controversial N-word. “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is really a large matter -- it's the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

For those interested in this subject, go to www.pbs.org/wgbh/cultureshock/teachers/huck/index.html and read “Huck Finn in Context -- A Teaching Guide.”

As It Stands, “Huckleberry Finn” is a revealing slice of life from another century, and there's not one good reason to change it in any way.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Sadly, deep in the bowels of hell Adolph Hitler is smiling.
Tom Holloway

Rose said...

I agree, with you, there is no excuse. Great post.

Dave Stancliff said...

Good to hear from you Rose.

Thanks for stopping by.

Don't be a stranger...even if we do look at some issues differently, you've always had my respect and I like hearing your views on various subjects.

Dave Gray said...

Context is key. Good post, Dave.