Huckleberry Finn and Politically Correct Revisionism

The great thing about having an all-purpose blog is that you can write about things that are not in the news, and have no relation to current affairs. In this case, I thought I would post something I should have written a few weeks ago.
On the 14 of January, I was delighted to speak at the AGM of the Society of Young Publishers. The theme was banned books, and censorship. One of the questions was regarding Mark Twain’s book Huckleberry Finn. Apparently an academic in the USA named Alan Gribben decided to re-publish the book, replacing the word ‘Nigger’ throughout. What did I think of this?
This is quite possibly the perfect question for this blog, focusing as I do with questions of free expression and political correctness, and also how digital technologies affect publishing. How to reconcile the rights of people to publish what they want, with the uncomfortable Orwellian overtones that happens when you replace one word for another in a text? How to reconcile the bullying and harm that the dreaded ‘N-word’ can cause, with the historical context?

First, here is Unity, commenting on my N-word blog at Liberal Conspiracy

At worst it contributes to a dumbing-down of mainstream culture in which classic novels like Twain’s ‘Huckleberry Finn’ have to be bowdlerised to make them ‘acceptable’ to a supposedly modern audience and books like ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, ‘The Color Purple’ and ‘Brave New World’ routinely appear in American Library Association’s annual list of the top ten most ‘challenged’ books. When people are actually writing to the local library to demand that ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ should be removed from its shelves due to its racist content then something is seriously fucked up.

I think we can despatch quickly with the question of whether the books mentioned are racist themselves, just because they use the word ‘nigger’. Clearly they are not. They have racist characters, but overall they are anti-racist tracts.
On the other hand, racial slurs persist and words have power to hurt. Writing on a slightly different issue – that of Tintin Au Congo – China Miéville makes the case for Thinking About The Children:

[Guy] Staggs, however, does insist that nothing, no matter how repulsive, should ever be even contextualised, let alone, sometimes, even, in certain contexts, adapted. He is the totalitarian. He must, by this logic, wish to live in a world where any black child – any child – excited to see Fantasia must be shocked by (no warning allowed!) & suffer through Sunflower, must wander into bookshops to be faced with mass-selling books calling them N****r in the title.

Should this concern hold for Huckleberry Finn, too? I don’t think so. There is a big difference between the creations Miéville considers, and Huckleberry Finn. Twain paints the slave Jim as a sympathetic character, whereas Fantasia and Tintin Au Congo mock and demean.
That said, I can well imagine that a book on a school library shelf that carried the N-word on every other page may be a source of confusion, misinterpretation, and even bullying. Boyce Watkins, in an op-ed for CNN, expands:

Long before I became a scholar, I was a black teenage boy. At that time, I would never have enjoyed hearing my English teacher repeat the n-word 219 times out loud in front of a class full of white students. I also would have wondered why African-Americans are the only ethnic group forced to read “classic” literature that uses such derogatory language toward us in a disturbingly repetitive way.
I would have found such a presentation to be only a hurtful and highly inefficient way for me to understand slavery, and I probably would have been teased.

So while one may simply demand greater vigilance from the teachers, or thicker skins from the children who may be on the receiving end of verbal abuse, I do not think that those seeking to remix Huckleberry Finn should be dismissed out-of-hand as politically correct fools. Huckleberry Finn has ‘a case to answer’, as it were. The prevalence of the N-word makes it Not Just Any Other Book. At the very least it needs a sticker, “Parental Advisory”. If we are going to argue that a book needs to be ‘read in context’ then we have a moral obligation to make damn sure that the children do receive that context.
But, as Miéville asks, who are we to insist that this book, above all others, should remain pure and unaltered? Is it not part of the function of art that it is subject to revision and reinterpretation? Surely the whole point of placing limitations on copyright is to explicitly allow and encourage re-editing and revisionism. To prevent publication of a revised Huckleberry Finn would be to infringe Alan Gribben’s right to free expression, and the rights of those who wish to read his new edition!
That doesn’t stop us reviewing the new version, perhaps suggesting that the alterations dilute the impact or authenticity of the narrator’s voice. And then… we wait to see which book prevails in the academic marketplace! Do the teachers have the time to teach the context of the original? Or is the new version simply more palatable? Sometimes, cover versions become more popular than the original.


Some twitter comments:


4 Replies to “Huckleberry Finn and Politically Correct Revisionism”

  1. I read a while ago about a woman who took her son out of school rather than have him listen to the racist filth that was To Kill a Mockingbird. After I’d banged my head against the wall for a while, I read the rest of the story; the significant detail was that the boy was the only Black kid in the class. Knowing how kids seize on any point of difference among them, and on anything in class that seems novel or rude, I could see how TKAM could have created quite a difficult environment for the kid.
    Unintended consequences are a swine. On the other hand, we can’t assume we’ll be protected from unintended consequences.

    1. Digitally, that’s exactly what they are doing. A ‘search and replace’ on a file like these, I imagine.
      There wouyld be an interesting design and typography challenge in altered books like this, I reckon. What visual cues can we use to show that the text has been changed?

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