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17 January 2011

Mark Twain was wrong, so an Auburn University professor will fix Twain's choice of werds in "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"

The New York Times
(daily broadsheet, New York City USA)
Wednesday 5 January 2011
 That’s Not Twain
Next month, you will be able to buy the single-volume NewSouth Edition of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” edited by Professor Alan Gribben of Auburn University at Montgomery [Alabama]. It differs from other editions of those books because Mr. Gribben has turned the word “nigger” -- as used by Tom and Huck -- into “slave.” Mr. Gribben has also changed “Injun” to Indian.
Mr. Gribben says he wants to make these American classics readable again -- for young readers and for anyone who is hurt by the use of an epithet that would have been ubiquitous in Missouri in the 1830s and 1840s, which is when both books are set. He says he discovered how much Twain’s language offended readers when he began giving talks about “Tom Sawyer” all across Alabama in 2009. He has also acknowledged that what he calls “textual purists” will be horrified by his sanitized versions of the two classics.
We are horrified, and we think most readers, textual purists or not, will be horrified too. The trouble isn’t merely adulterating Twain’s text. It’s also adulterating social, economic and linguistic history. Substituting the word “slave” makes it sound as though all the offense lies in the “n-word” and has nothing to do with the institution of slavery. Worse, it suggests that understanding the truth of the past corrupts modern readers, when, in fact, this new edition is busy corrupting the past.
When “Huckleberry Finn” was published, Mark Twain appended a note on his effort to reproduce “painstakingly” the dialects in the book, including several backwoods dialects and “the Missouri negro dialect.” What makes “Huckleberry Finn” so important in American literature isn’t just the story, it’s the richness, the detail, the unprecedented accuracy of its spoken language. There is no way to “clean up” Twain without doing irreparable harm to the truth of his work.
- 30 -
A version of this editorial appeared in print on January 6, 2011, on page A26 of the New York edition.


Ryszard Wasilewski said...

Why stop at Twain? -- lets get serious and strike at the (hard) core: The Bible! God being a "He" -- some people don't like that, do they. Looking further back, Gilgamesh was a bit of a misogynistic tract and needs some serious tinkering with.

Vleeptron Dude said...

Hiya Ryszard,

Well, the question, ultimately, is: How do we, in the Present, treat the Past.

The dead people who created the Past no longer have the power to preserve the Past and keep its accuracy.

But the people of the Present -- as we see from this miserable editing of "Huckleberry Finn" -- have the power either to preserve the accuracy of the Past, or choose to fuck up the Past, bend it, distort it, fill it full of lies -- Revisionism.

When the Republicans took over the majority of the US House of Representatives a few weeks ago, for their first act, they read the entire U.S. Constitution.

Sort of.

Each member was given his/her section of the Constitution a few minutes before his/her turn to read it.

But it wasn't the US Constitution the way you'd find it if you Googled it.

Speaker of the House John Boehner had prepared a "special" text of the Constitution. It differed from the real Constitution in several ways.

* There was no mention of slavery. (In the original Constitution, a slave is defined as a fraction of a free citizen.

* There was no mention of the Amendment that Prohibited the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages for 14 years. Someone did read the Amendment that repealed alcohol Prohibition -- but no one could tell what this Amendment repealed.

Essentially, the Republicans wanted the House to read a "sanitized," revisionist Constitution that hid all of the mistakes in US legal history -- a Disney Constitution.

Someone needs to do a lot of serious thinking about the responsibilities which we in the Present have toward the accuracy, truth and integrity of the Past.


patfromch said...

Well, history is written by the winners, isn’t it ?

How about Dante ? Too much violence anyway. Mohammed in Hell ? Cannot be tolerated. Or Shakespeare. Shylock, Othello The Moor or suicidal Ophelia are too much for young minds. And there is too much War in War and Peace. I would also like to mention that the treatment of Grendel in Beowulf is fairly intolerant. The attempted lynch scene in To Kill A Mockingbird is also intolerable for young readers. Heck that ad usem delphi thing is fun, I could go on...

Jim Olson said...

We have the same argument about language in hymns in hymnals. Old hymns sometimes contain old words, and old cultural ideas.

Changing them changes what we understand about the past, and what we understand about the present. There is the occasional pronoun change that is ok, where it does not change the rhythm, meter or meaning of a hymn substantially, but more significant changes do violence to the hymns as written.

My own denomination took this attitude to the n-th degree in its 1986 New Century Hymnal. Meant to replace the 1946 Pilgrim Hymnal (which at the time was considered the 'gold-standard' of hymnals), it changed texts all over the place. It went completely gender neutral not only with reference to God, but also to Jesus and the Holy Spirit. It eliminated all patriarchal, royalty words such as Lord and King. There were other changes to horrible to contemplate.

If the NCH had left the old hymns alone, and added to the ones that they chose to include with the amazing new hymnody that it did choose, the NCH would be the new gold standard. Unfortunately it is not. Many UCC churches simply won't use it; we chose not to use it. It simply does too much violence to the historic poetry contained in the hymns.

Ryszard Wasilewski said...

@ Jim Olson -- Holy Spirit and God might be debatable, but the Son of God being gender neutral takes us into a difficult area.

@ Vleeptron -- the US Constitution is sort of flexible, (am I right?), not only in its apparent context, but also in its interpretation, as recent maneuvering has shown. Still, don't you think, it is hard to grasp how bearing WMDs concealed in your armpit is neither a right or a privilege, but creeping to being almost mandatory?

Jim Olson said...

@Ryszard, of course, that's the point. The historical person Jesus of Nazareth was male. Hard to avoid that.