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10 January 2011

"Twain scholar" Alan Gribben edits new edition of "Huckleberry Finn," substitutes Twain's "nigger" for the word "slave"

Professor Alan Gribben
English Department
Auburn University
 
Dear Professor Gribben,
 
I was shocked not by what you did to "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," but to discover that you are an English professor -- and often described as a leading Twain scholar -- at Auburn University.
 
The first responsibility of a literary scholar is to preserve, respect and protect the original text of a literary classic.
 
When the classic requires translation between languages. certain liberties in word choice are allowed and even necessary.
 
But Twain wrote "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" in a historically immediate and universally comprehensible dialect of our American English. Every word he chose, he chose for a reason. He did not rely on copyright law to protect his writing. He relied on the demands and expectations of his appreciative readers, who would have been horrified and disgusted at the slightest text changes to his published writing which Twain himself did not make and authorize.
 
That these changes to "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" occur one century after the author's death -- one century after Twain lost his living ability to defend his text from attack and perverse change -- is frankly cowardly and ghoulish, and is certainly not characteristic of anyone daring to call himself a scholar.
 
A scholar protects both his author and his author's historical times, as the author scrupulously chronicled them.
 
Must I remind you that the shame and embarrassment of "nigger" in "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" are there, by Twain's choice, to shock and shame his readers for all time as Twain chronicled the details and vocabulary of American life under slavery?
 
You have no right to pass yourself off as a scholar, you embarrass Auburn, and worst of all, you pervert the right of an author to speak clearly to his readers across the span of time.
 
Sincerely,
 
Robert Merkin
 
Chesterfield, Massachusetts USA
 

8 comments:

PatFromCH said...

My godson in Oz tells me that they are not allowed to sing Ba Ba Black Sheep anymore. Has to be a reinbow sheep now. Joyce's Ulysses recently got banned in the iunes Store, in CH you can't call someone a Foreigner anymore, it has to be a person with migration background and just recently someone claimed that the pictograms on local street signs were sexist. George Carlin is rotating in his grave I reckon.

Oh btw Connie Willis wrote a nice little story called "Ado", good old Kurt Vonnegut also had some sharp words on this PC nonsense.

Jim Olson said...

Political historical revisionism from any side is reprehensible. The word should stand. I have actually just read the book for the first time, (because of the brouhaha we were not given it to read as a child). Changing it would be a shame.

Ryszard Wasilewski said...

Of course it is very sad to see this kind of thing. But do bear in mind that whatever (assumed) assumptions Twain had, the word "nigger" had very different connotations then that it has now. Not flattering, certainly derogatory in a patronizing sort of way, but hardly forbidden, like now. Anyone spend time with "African Americans" and witness the use and applied meaning of that term amongst them?
Still OK to say Polack, though? I find it very common. Polish people use the term themselves to describe a certain type of attitude amongst their fellow emigrants, or even fellow natives by now.
Anyone know what septic is?
Clue: look up Cockney rhyming slang.

Vleeptron Dude said...

Yo Ryszard --

Not wishing to "explain" Twain's reasons for using the word "nigger" in "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" (1884/1885 ... and in the USA, slavery ended in 1865), because only Twain can explain his reasons for using that word, but I think my explanation will be close enough for rock n roll.

"Huckleberry Finn" is a novel -- fiction, a story -- about life under slavery in the American South (Missouri, specifically) during the 1830s. This was the era and region of Twain's (Samuel Clemens') youth.

We need to ask deep questions about history and memory -- or worse, deep questions about our right to erase or modify -- lie about -- our own factual history.

Not just that the USA, and the British colonies that preceded the USA, legally engaged in the ownership and free physical labor of African human beings, but how the slave owners, and the slaves themselves, spoke about themselves and the institution of slavery.

What right, today, do we have to erase or lie about what slavery was and what life under slavery was like?

If today we decide to lie about slavery, for what fine, decent, moral, ethical reason are we changing the historical facts under which tens of thousands of our fellow human beings suffered and were raped and oppressed?

A narrower question: What right do we "moderns" have to change the text of the great (or not so great) writers of the past?

That's an easy question: We have no right whatsoever to change the language of Melville, Twain, or Hawthorne, no matter what words they used, and no matter what offense their stories or language caused. They wrote stories that tried to capture the reality and factual history of the past. We have no right to "sanitize" or "prettify" the true historical past they witnessed and chronicled.

Ryszard Wasilewski said...

Ahoy Vleeptron!

Thank you for your comments on my comments. I agree with you entirely -- also, I did not express myself very clearly and perhaps gave the impression that I supported sanitization of uncomfortable past.

I did read the novel in the equivalent of US middle school, in translation of course, and I no longer remember what word was substituted for "nigger" there, but I'm sure that the Soviet Block edition was not concerned with attending to American sensitivities and that some kind of brutal form was used.
Characteristics attributed to the US behind the "Curtain" would of course make Howard Zinn's comments sound ultra right wing conservative. Fiddling with History was BIG back then in the wake of all the Holocausts and Great Terrors, so to hear nigger changed to slave fills me with nostalgia for the Good Old Days, but I must say, I do feel just that little twinge of apprehension. The New Speak we were taught back then was a very comprehensive alteration of the language we were familiar with -- it had its own grammar, forms of speech and address, and vocabulary. Still, it must have started with some small but significant command: no more nigger! you will now say slave!

Paranoid? Nah...

I just love seeing those cycles of History rearin' up in these Interesting Times.

patfromch said...

The Australians refer to Amercicans as "septics" or septic tanks.
How come that lit prof was too lazy to write a foreword in which he explains the historical context ? I thought that this is what lit profs are for.
German translations used the concept of at usem delphi, our lit prof wants to attempt the same here. If my memory is correect I read the Tom Sawyer and Hick Finn boks in this fashion. Twain was a sort of bestseller writer in his day, the earliest translations into german I can find are from the 1870s. I could check these for use of lingo if anyone is interested. Might be interesting.
And here is some Rush: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PezbKwNsOnE

Jim Olson said...

Did you get a letter in response from the Professor?

Vleeptron Dude said...

Nope ... but let's be charitable. This became a big national story with a huge amount of media coverage. He must have received 1000 letters about his new edition of "Huckleberry Finn." If he only replied to the polite ones -- my letter fits in the "polite if chilly" category -- he's got a lot of e-mailing to do.

What I find saddest about this episode is that Auburn is an excellent university with excellent academic standards. Okay, it ain't Harvard or the University of Chicago, and when most people think of Auburn, they think first of (American) football. But Auburn is an excellent university, and it's just a shame to have a screwup like this associated with Auburn's excellent reputation.

Okay, let me find the national news story that this new "Huckleberry Finn" edition spewed all over the USA's newspapers. You've read Vleeptron's opinion. Let's see how newspapers and wire services covered this embarrassment.