Huck and Slave Jim’s Excellent Adventure

January 15th, 2011

Professor Alan Gribben of the University of Alabama – a Mark Twain scholar, no less – is publishing an edition of Huckleberry Finn in which the word “nigger” does not appear.  No more Nigger Jim.  “Slave” is the euphemism our professor has chosen to replace “nigger,” all 219 instances of it in the work, if “slave” can be considered a euphemism for anything.  The rationale offered for the change is to avoid offending contemporary black sensibilities and thereby to gain readers for Twain.

It is touching that such sensitivity should emanate from a bulwark of the former Confederacy. One would not think that a person makes amends for former sins by covering them up, and in any event it is a peculiar tactic to cover up the sin of racial denigration by repeatedly referring in its place to the greater sin of chattel bondage, but white guilt takes us to some strange places.  I don’t know whether guilt actually is the motivation here, but it seems implicit in the project.

Well, Mark Twain was a big boy, and if he were alive he could stand up for himself.  He had a big vocabulary, and I’m sure he knew both words, “nigger” and “slave,” and if he chose to write the word “nigger” 219 times instead of the word “slave” he probably intended to do so for reasons which might be worth thinking about but which will be obscure, of course, to readers of this edition, who will have been spared such troublesome questions.  Twain’s great novel doubtless will survive this act of vandalism, as it will survive our squeamishness at its language.  After all, if the Holocaust didn’t make us shy away from the Merchant of Venice because it depicts anti-Semitism, it’s a good bet that we along with Huck are going to keep coming back to the raft.

Writing the word “vandalism,” I suppose there are some who might seek to tar me with the same brush, but I don’t think that writing a sequel to Dante’s Commedia, freely acknowledged as my own product, ranks on a par with foisting on the public as an edition of a great author’s masterpiece a work from which the editor has excised a key word repeated by that author hundreds of times, replacing it with a word which the editor imagines the author might have used if, after somehow having been rendered aesthetically tone deaf and oblivious to shades of meaning, the author had decided to accommodate the feelings the editor imagines of people the author never could have imagined meeting.

That may be to put it too charitably by focusing too much on Professor Gribben’s benevolent and palliative intentions.  I rather doubt that a man of Twain’s brilliant social perceptiveness, broad acquaintance, and verbal acumen was unconscious of the charge carried by what we now gingerly term “the n-word,” despite its greater currency in polite white society in his times.  It was never a term of endearment, never neutral.  Henry James famously described the novel as a form of social history.  It might not be too much of a stretch to say that Twain’s use of language was, among other things, a form of reportage.  He meant to show how it hurt, and whom.  In that case, what Professor Gribben has wrought is not merely the declawing of a sharply barbed text, domesticating a wild animal, but the erasure of important testimony to a crucial part of our collective past.  People used to say nigger.  All the time.  To people whom they considered to be niggers, whom they treated as niggers.  And whom they might grow to know, voluntarily to suffer for, and to love.  And that’s just Huck.  What of Jim?  His journey is not only to freedom from slavery, but to outgrow niggerhood.  All this, gone – snip!  Did I say Gribben has declawed the novel?  He’s cut its heart out!

Just so as to be clear, I would like posterity to refrain, in the unlikely event that posterity is tempted to do so, from replacing any word I have written and calling the result mine.

This entry was posted on Saturday, January 15th, 2011 at 9:03 pm and is filed under Literature. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

2 Responses to “Huck and Slave Jim’s Excellent Adventure”

  1. Tim Twinam Says:

    Thank you for writing this. Thank you for your honesty. Sadly, thank you for your courage.

    I believe I am correct in stating that there is not a racist bone in my body – and as I feel constrained to write that, I believe it emphasizes the ridiculous legacy of Political Correctness. PC is at its heart, a Good Thing. It wishes to ‘first do no harm’, but to rewrite history and literature based on the vagaries of cultural and social evolution is an error of profound proportions.

    I understand the basic intent of Alan Gribben, but I deplore the application. Should we repaint the Mona Lisa because a certain shade of blue offends, or replace the words of the Hallelujah Chorus?

    If History has proved anything, it is that censorship is not a friend to accuracy. If we cannot look back and see from whence we came, how will we ever know that we took the right path or that we as a society have progressed?

  2. Don Rosenow Says:

    In which I agree with the blogger 100%

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