Mark Twain said that the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.
In “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Samuel Clemens believed that the right word to describe the attitudes of pre-Civil War white Southerners toward black slaves was “nigger,” and he unleashed it no less than 218 times in his manuscript.
The storm he conjured up in writing the novel electrified the Jim Crow South and scorches the earth to this day.
Throughout his life, Twain’s writing was so revolutionary and dangerous that many editors refused to print his most provocative pieces. His family begged him to stop bringing controversy upon them, and he instructed publishers not to print thousands of pages that he wrote until he was long buried.
Now, 100 years after his death, the censors are still furiously trampling on his tomb, and opportunists are “improving” his writing while he’s not around to burn them with a cigar.
In recent weeks, New York City Councilman Charles Barron called to have Huck Finn banned, and the publisher NewSouth announced that it wanted to spare him the trouble by releasing a new version without the “hurtful” language.
The publisher didn’t mean removing the realistic depiction of a society that would enslave a man, chase him and a runaway boy down a river, and place a bounty on them. NewSouth meant it would not show Americans using the “N-word.”
This is whitewashing history, and great literature, past the point of incoherence.
But even Tom Sawyer knew that whitewashing can be profitable.
Auburn University Professor Alan Gribben, the assassin behind the NewSouth edition, said, “I believe that a significant number of school teachers, college instructors, and general readers will welcome the option of an edition of Twain’s fused novels that spares the reader from a racial slur that never seems to lose its vitriol.”
Notice that Gribben did not say “students.” That’s because Gribben was referring only to the consumers that matter – the people who would buy his book.
Economist James Koch has described textbooks as a “broken market,” because the “primary individuals who choose college textbooks (faculty) are not the people that pay for those textbooks (students).”
Since the textbook market is largely unregulated, he called it “oligopolistic,” in his 2005 report.
Simba Information, a market analyst for the media and publishing industry, estimated the sales of pre-K to grade-12 textbooks at $8.3 billion in 2010.
Gribben’s Bowdlerized Hxck Fxnn already has received the type of publicity it’s impossible to buy. The announcement generated hundreds of articles overnight, welcome responses from some prestigious news outlets, and enough controversy from detractors to fuel at least one reprinting.
There will always be people too uncomfortable with America’s racial history to touch the real thing. Just ask the professor.
Gribben said that in giving lectures on “Huck Finn” in several states, “I always recoiled from uttering the racial slurs spoken by numerous characters.”
Schoolteachers have always had to address their discomfort, and their students’ feelings, through classroom discussions of all the issues involved here.
Gribben prefers to cut the offensive language instead.
Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, in referring to similar calls to suppress “Huck Finn” in the 1980s, said, “It struck me as a purist yet elementary kind of censorship designed to appease adults rather than educate children. Amputate the problem, Band-Aid the solution.”
Gribben said that in his edition he replaced “nigger” with “slave,” which he called its “synonym.”
They are not, of course. Greeks and Romans had white slaves. But it doesn’t take a scholar to see that the words don’t mean the same thing.
Try to imagine what would drive a slaveholder to abuse and murder the person from whom he receives his livelihood.
In “Following the Equator,” Twain recalled how his otherwise “just and upright” father would “commonly beat our harmless slave boy Lewis for any little blunder or awkwardness, which terrified the poor thing nearly out of his wits.”
He described, in brutal detail, watching a man “fling a lump of iron ore at his slave in anger – for merely doing something awkwardly, as if that were a crime. It bounded from his skull, and the man fell and never spoke again. He was dead in an hour.”
A slaveholder does not casually murder a man who works for him for free. There needs to be a word to describe how he views the object of his hatred, and how he hates him as an object. To deny that word is to make us incapable of describing how such atrocities took place.
Gribben also objects to the word “Injun” in “Huck Finn,” but that word is tame in comparison to the one Twain used to describe native people in Australasia.
“In many countries,” Twain said, “we have chained the savage and starved him to death. We have hunted the savage and his little children and their mother with guns and dogs through the woods for an afternoon sport. We have taken the savage’s land, and made him our slave, and made death his only friend. There are many humorous things in the world, among them the white man’s notion that he is less savage than the other savages.”
I challenge Professor Gribben to find a way that Clemens could have better expressed the brutality and hypocrisy of colonialism without using a word that most people of conscience find deplorable.
It’s through ignorance of our own history that there is any debate about Mark Twain’s language. Clemens nearly caused a rebellion against British colonialism in New Zealand. He railed against the caste system in India and performed for inmates of a South African prison during the Boer War.
When he returned to America, he became a vocal opponent of the Spanish-American War, and served as vice president of the now-defunct Anti-Imperialist League.
This is not the behavior of a crypto-racist.
Like so much else in his life, Clemens laughed at efforts to suppress his books. He said, “When a library expels a book of mine and leaves an unexpurgated Bible lying around where unprotected youth and age can get hold of it, the deep unconscious irony of it delights me and doesn’t anger me.”
Still, he hated opportunism, especially when it came to other people capitalizing on his work. His signature white suit was a statement against copyright law. He felt his work should never fall into the public domain, and its profits should go to his family in perpetuity.
Luckily for Twain scholars and readers around the world, his efforts failed, but a misguided effort like this makes you wonder if he was right.
In this case, Gribben took a 125-year-old document, made some light edits, and performed the type of word replacements that any software with a “Find and Replace” function can perform in a few seconds.
Is this is the type of taxing, careful, and methodical intellectual labor that takes years of study and several advanced degrees to master, or did NewSouth hire a professor willing to give their con job a patina of intellectual respectability?
This isn’t about sensitivity, progress, inclusiveness, or the limits of free expression. This is just naked hucksterism.
Adam Klasfeld is the author of “The Report of My Death,” a play exploring repressed aspects of Mark Twain’s life and work.