Saturday, January 8, 2011

Not Your Huckleberry

New South Books (a name apparently designed to send us a message as to its intentions) has decided as an example that the use of the 'N-word' in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" is offensive; and has decided to edit this Mark Twain classic, substituting the word 'slave' instead. The fact that the 'N-word' is in fact considered offensive because it implies a concept more in keeping with slavery has to make one wonder why the word Twain used is more offensive than the actual word that NSB will use. In the spirit of multiculturalism, NSB also found the term 'injun' offensive. 

Such is the nature of political correctness in the modern age. Perhaps instead, we should all find the concept of editing historic literature to the politically correct standards of today something even more offensive. If not, we must otherwise ask ourselves what other novels of that historic period (or others) we should go back and rewrite in order to bring them up to a more considerate and compassionate standard? Shakespeare talks about spousal abuse in "The Taming of the Shrew". Should the plot be modified to describe the relationship instead as one of two people quietly discussing their differences before finding common ground? "The Handmaid's Tale" from 1986 by Margaret Atwood describes every form of abasement that a woman can be subjected to. Should we sanitize it (leaving little left), or better still, ban it in an effort to fit today's code? 

But what the heck, if we're going to take the trip down the crazy road, let's not stop with changing pieces of literature ... The Old Testament of the Bible tells us how to sell one's daughter into the slavery that seems to be objectionable in Twain's novel, "And if a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the menservants do." Leviticus 21:9 goes further perhaps, giving us guidelines for capital punishment (or perhaps even murder) for those committing adultery, "If a man commits adultery with another man's wife ... with the wife of his neighbor ... both the adulterer and adulteress must be put to death."

Certainly these are not the only potentially objectionable passages from this holy book, and most assuredly not the only questionable excerpts that could be taken from the combined religious texts of the world today. What should the standard be for which terms or concepts are offensive and which books should be changed to fit a more modern sensibility? 

You know, this discussion came up some years back on a much smaller scale when many wide screen movies were adapted to viewing on television. Since movies filmed in processes like VistaVision, Panavision, and Cinemascope did not fit the 'small screen', people were hired to crop the frame in order to make them do so. As many movie directors have since pointed out, this allowed these editors to substitute their vision for the director's point of view. Often in fact, the visual scope or message that the director of these films was trying to convey (or both) was lost through this editing processes. 

Recent years have seen calmer head prevail and these misguided efforts rightfully retracted; and though wide screen movies often now more closely fit the aspect ratios of current flat panel televisions, channels that show movies filmed in wide screen formats choose to show them in their original form whether they fit or not. 

The same standard should be applied to the printed page, and for the same reasons. There is no way that current editors can make changes to these works without changing both the authors art and intent. Poor and politically incorrect language was used because it was common parlance of the time. It speaks to the sensibilities of the era as much as it does to the nature of the story. It sometimes speaks to the biases of the writer, an element critical to understanding the intent of the story. Without the proper historical perspective, it's impossible to understand what the author was conveying to his audience (and if history is to be any judge, pretty successfully)

The writing of Mark Twain is well worth the effort of young people to read regardless of its purported faults; both from the standpoint of well-written literature and from its ability to describe a historical perspective on the life of the times. 

There are likewise many other good pieces of literature of a fictional or religious nature that contain questionable terms and concepts, and yet remain worthy of the effort of reading. It may mean that the teachers who direct their students to them may need to do a bit of explanation as to some of the questionable material contained therein; but that after all, is a large part of the job of teaching. In fact, helping students to gain an understanding of the complexity of such material may be the most gratifying part of such a career. As for those who seek to redefine Twain or any other classic literature, let me mix the metaphor and paraphrase something said in a more recent cinematic effort, "Tombstone". As far as this Doc Holliday is concerned, its time to tell the New South Books version of Johnny Ringo:

"This isn't your Huckleberry."

Update: I appear to not be alone in choosing this as a subject this weekend, and there is an excellent piece at Mad Jack's Shack Rant on it.


Anonymous said...

This is all about limiting Free Speech. After all, censorship is everywhere. The gov’t (and their big business cronies) censor free speech, shut down dissent and ban the book “America Deceived II”. Free speech for all, especially Mark Twain.
Last link (before Google Books bans it also]:

Tim Higgins said...

I am not a fan of anonymous comments, as I feel that anyone with the courage of their convictions should be willing to sign their name to expressing them.

I am even less of a fan of having someone linking the sale of material to a comment to this blog. For some reason that I don't entirely understand, I am stretching those limits almost to their breaking point and leaving this one up.