08 January 2011

Huck You

Next, we airbrush out the cigars.

It’s probably no surprise that I’m allying myself with the camp that now decries (to and perhaps beyond the point of overkill) Alan Gribben’s new bowdlerized edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. As you’ve probably heard, the professor, a hothouse flower if ever there was one, has removed the N-word from the text, replacing it with “slave,” and renaming Injun Joe as “Indian Joe.”* Gribben means well, surely: Twain’s use of currently offensive words is driving his novels off of library shelves (again — they’ve always been banned by someone or other) and diminishing his potential audience. But a chorus now thunders that Gribben’s approach is no remedy, and I chime in — but for reasons having everything to do with the power of an ugly word to shock a contemporary reader out of complacency. That’s what Twain wanted to do, and what we need.

How Not to Edit a Book

I do share Professor Gribben’s distaste for the N-word. Even as a boy, when the word was still in casual currency among white people (often without pejorative intent), including many white people I knew, I found it ugly. Since then, I’ve never once uttered the word except when quoting someone else, and I’m not going to start here; my purpose is not Twain’s, or even Gribben’s. As the descendant of slave-owners, I’m conscious that the word will remain off-limits to me forevermore. I must sound like a fool, prancing around and saying “N-word” instead, but so be it. And I daresay I’d have trouble teaching Huck Finn, too, because doing so would require me to repeat a word I find almost physically impossible to speak.

But the very ugliness of the word is like a gateway into the mindset of Twain’s times — and those even earlier times described in Huck Finn. In Twain’s day and for generations thereafter, readers were shocked and in some cases horrified by Huck’s friendship with the runaway slave Jim (which is how the book got banned to begin with), but nowadays it’s much harder to appreciate the extent of Jim’s oppression, or of Huck’s courage in helping him to find freedom.

Twain depicts a society in which his book’s noblest character is treated with the ugliest language and worse behavior. Jim has no rights, no power. As Americans, we forget that at our peril, and few documents serve as better reminders than Huckleberry Finn. For all that we see Jim’s predicament within the plot, the N-word keeps driving it home to a modern reader. “Slave” may reinforce the reminders of Jim’s status — there are weaker words Professor Gribben might have chosen, after all. But in ways that Twain couldn’t have predicted, the N-word is stronger and more effective now than it was in his own day.

The old boy would be thrilled by the amount of press coverage
he’s getting these days.

And what elevates Huck from the condition of mere protagonist to that of hero is precisely his willingness to oppose that society by doing what is right — even though he’s told by every authority figure in his society that he’s wrong. Rebellious though Huck may be, he’s grown up listening to teachers, politicians, and preachers defend slavery and rail against abolitionism, and when he declares, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell,” he really believes that will be his fate. That passage, which I’ve reprinted below, is an extraordinary “teachable moment,” as folks say now, though it carries with it a heavy responsibility: it must be taught, and not merely repeated.

It’s tough to put into context any work from another era. The director Anne Bogart once staged Bernstein’s On the Town on the deck of a battleship, to clarify what the show’s original audience could not possibly have ignored: that America was at war, nobody knew whether we’d win, and the “just one day” imperatives of the sailors are dictated not only by the terms of shore leave but by the very real possibility that they might die in combat. (A similar urgency drives Weill’s One Touch of Venus, especially the “Forty Minutes for Lunch” ballet, as well as other works from the period.)

There is no battleship in Huckleberry Finn to thrust the modern audience into the spirit of Jim’s times. But surely that nasty little word can help us to understand — and to remember, even while some folks celebrate Secession’s anniversary (as if it had nothing to do with wide-scale injustice), what things were really like.

We can’t replicate perfectly the original impact of any work. But we don’t do ourselves any good by chipping away at its materials, or by whitewashing over its uglier aspects. Professor Gribben’s blundering gesture toward political correctness has become its own kind of teachable moment, albeit surely not what he intended. (If anybody wonders why liberals have trouble persuading voters of the rightness of their causes, you may start by looking at the present case.) I urge you not to buy Gribben’s edition, but to go back and read Twain’s.

There, you will find passages such as this one:

I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking — thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ’stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and suchlike times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had smallpox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I'll go to hell” — and tore it up.

*NOTE: As advanced as he was for his time on matters of race, Twain falls far behind when it comes to Native Americans. Some of his remarks are so nasty, you can’t believe you’re reading the same Mark Twain. I’m always surprised by this: how can someone who gets it right on other matters get it so wrong on this one? But there it is.

1 comment:

William V. Madison said...

A postcript -- it's worth noting that my high-school English teacher was able to guide us through The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn without ever once using the N-word; I don't think any of us in long-ago suburban Texas came away with significant misunderstandings of the word or of Jim's place in the society of his time. So, pace Professor Gribben, it's perfectly possible to teach this book with its integrity -- and one's own -- intact.