Thursday, January 06, 2011

Take it from the old stage manager

who's seen 'em come and go . . . . When I heard about the new edition of Huck Finn that cleans up Mark Twain's pesky use of the word nigger, deja vu of a very real sort came over me. A similar bowdlerization happened at least once before, more than 25 years ago, and I reported on it in my guise as YA columnist for School Library Journal. Courtesy of Mark Tuchman at SLJ who graciously found and scanned the thing for me, here it is again. From the August, 1984 SLJ:

In the YA Corner
Roger Sutton
Children's Librarian
North Pulaski Branch
The Chicago Public Library

"Sivilizing" Huck Finn

Despite Mark Twain's notice that "Persons attempting to find a moral in this narrative will be banished," the woods surrounding his Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are thick with thieves; the only thing being banished is this book. While in a gentler time Louisa May Alcott could remark, "If Mr. Clemens cannot think of something better to tell our pure-minded lads and lasses, he had best stop writing for them," the issue today is not coarseness, but racism.

My interest here is in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Adapted, published by John H. Wallace, (John H. Wallace & Sons Co., 1983). A letter accompanying the review copy states, "Very little has been changed. The term "nigger" has been exorcised, as have the stereotypical assumptions that blacks steal, are not intelligent, and are not human." Wallace, who is black, had attempted to ban Twain's book from the Mark Twain Intermediate School in Fairfax, Virginia. "I don't care about the First Amendment. I care about children," he was quoted in the Chicago Sun-Times (April II, 1982).

Now, we care about the First Amendment, precisely because we care about children. But Wallace believes that children—particularly black children—are hurt and humiliated by this book. Since his unsuccessful attempt to ban it, he wrote a "sivilized" version.

But given Wallace's premise that the book is racist, can we say that his "edited" version has rendered it less so? I don't think it has. In fact, I believe he has taken Huckleberry Finn, a book containing some strong anti-racist sentiment, and turned it into a very different book, one that is racist "by omission" (to borrow a phrase from the Council on Interracial Books for Children). Wallace's changes are of several kinds. Most prominent is the complete expurgation (Wallace calls it "exorcism") of the word "nigger," replacing it most often with "slave," and occasionally "servant" or "fellow." Sometimes he omits phrases or sentences containing the offending word.

Wallace says, "Very little has been changed"—"nigger" is a word occurring countless times in Twain's book. It is (and was in Twain's time) an ugly word. "Slave," on the other hand, is only descriptive, carrying no value judgment or emotional freight. For the most part, changing "nigger" to "slave" doesn't distort the literal, narrative sense of Twain's book. For example, Wallace changes "By and by they fetched the niggers in and had prayers," to "By and by they fetched the slaves in and had prayers." Despite the change, readers still know, nominally, to whom Twain is referring.

Twain, however, used "nigger," not "slave," and he used it on purpose. Remember, Huck tells the story, and "nigger" is the word he would use. The point of the story is that Huck is an ignorant, uneducated racist who, when faced with a choice between his racism and helping a slave escape, says, "All right, then, I'll go to hell," choosing to aid his friend Jim, a "nigger."

By changing "nigger" to "slave," Wallace rewrites not only Twain but history, fashioning Huck's society to appear less racist than it really was. Whites of that time did believe "Give a nigger an inch and he'll take an ell," but not in Wallace's book—he deleted that sentence. With Wallace's removal of the "nigger," and his softening of white bigotry in Twain's book, readers can conclude that life wasn't so bad for blacks in the South. Indeed, they can conclude that blacks scarcely existed. By simply referring to them as "slaves," readers can forget why they were enslaved to begin with.

Wallace also changes Huck's relationship with Jim. Huck, by Wallace, doesn't believe "He was a mighty good nigger, Jim was." Instead, "He was a mighty good man, Jim was." In Twain's book, Huck, expressing approval of Jim, says, "I knowed he was white inside." In Wallace's, this becomes "I knowed he was good." Why is Wallace so eager to let Huck Finn off the hook? What was, in Twain, a telling exposure of how racism infects even the most sympathetic of characters becomes, in Wallace, just a coupla guys sitting around on a raft, talkin'. Huck is no Simon Legree. He does love Jim, but cannot escape his own racism entirely. That's the point. The world would be a lot simpler if we had bad guys and good guys, but what we do have is a whole lot of mixed-up, uneasy people positively bustling with ignorance. And that's Huck—us—the good guys.

Look at how Wallace sweetens up Aunt Sally. When Huck tells her a fabricated story of a steamboat accident, the old dear replies, "Good gracious! Anybody hurt?" And when Huck replies "No'm," she's relieved. "Well, it's lucky, because sometimes people do get hurt." Let's see this same exchange in Twain:

"It warn't the grounding—that didn't keep us back but a little. We blowed out a cylinder-head."
"Good gracious I Anybody hurt?"
"No'm. Killed a nigger."
"Well, it's lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt."

Different, isn't it? Aunt Sally, sweet Aunt Sally, doesn't care if it "killed a nigger" so long as "people" didn't "get hurt." It is as if she didn't hear Huck's response; like Wallace, she ignores the "nigger's" existence. Wallace reduces Twain's neat irony to a pointless exchange, like Aunt Sally, complacently ignorant.

I can say what I do about these two Huckleberry Finns only because (unlike the intended audience of Wallace's book) I have both books in front of me. I can see that in Twain's book the angels "hoverin' round" Huck's father are black and white, the ones in Wallace's are white and "yaller." (The white angel is still the good 'un.) I can see that Jim calls Huck "Honey" in Twain, but not in Wallace (and that change begs more questions than it answers). What I can't see is what Wallace expects students to get out of his book. Twain's stern moral vision, his irony—the reasons this book is taught—are gone. What's left?

What's left is ignorance. Wallace, who has called Twain's book "the most grotesque example of racist trash ever written" (Chicago Sun-Times, May 25, 1984), has revealed his own; and through his "sivilizing" of Huck, seeks to pass it on.

"I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can't stand it." Me neither, Huck. Have a safe trip.


Annie said...

Very well said. I'd also argue that while Wallace might "care about children," I wonder who he thinks is reading "Huck Finn." It's certainly not a second-grader. (Or at least, I don't know any second grade classroom that has "Huck Finn" on its syllabus.) Anyone who's read "Huck Finn" has probably encountered these words anyway. Also, I find it extremely condescending to think that preteens and teens aren't emotionally/intellectually ready to encounter these uncomfortable words and a really terrible part of history. How else are they supposed to learn about racism and responses over time?

HL said...

Thank you for posting this Roger. I've been trying to wrap my head around my thoughts for this--something other than "BAD IDEA!!" You much more coherently express a lot of what has troubled me.

B. said...

Thoughtful article (reminding us that everything old is new again, when it comes to such issues -- around and around and around we go).

I was pondering the Huck Finn debate as I drove around the city yesterday, and thought if someone truly wanted to make a statement about how they felt about the choice of language used in Huck Finn, perhaps a more useful way to address the question, rather than simply publishing a version with all the "bad" bits excised, would be to write an intelligent book for young readers/YA readers in which the protagonist has to grapple with the issues put forth in the book as he/she reads it as part of a class assignment.

Anonymous said...

" "Slave," on the other hand, is only descriptive, carrying no value judgment or emotional freight."

Would you still say this, Roger?

Roger Sutton said...

Anon, I feel like yours is a loaded question but I don't know what's in the gun ;-) I might not say today that the word carries no emotional freight because obviously it does. But I'm comfortable with "slave" as a descriptor--for a while there Ginny Moore Kruse was trying to get everyone to say "enslaved persons," but that seems wordy and I prefer blunt.

LaurieA-B said...

B., have you read The Day They Came to Arrest the Book by Nat Hentoff? Published 1983.

Helen Frost said...

Sorry, Roger--I just couldn't find my Google Blogger password, so I sent that question as "anonymous." It wasn't intended to feel like a loaded gun, but asked out of respectful curiosity. I'm wondering if we really have not come any further in our thinking about this in the past 25 years, and would like to see if we can acknowledge a bit more complexity.

I think Ginny is right--it's more truthful, even if it takes an extra word, to acknowledge that slavery was an institution enforced by actual people. The verb is important. It was something that someone did to someone else. "Slave" seems to have the effect of passing down a feeling of shame to children whose ancestors were enslaved, and rarely to the descendants of the enslavers.

I come at this from two angles--as a writer, of course I'm squeamish about changing another author's language, and clearly Twain was intentional in his choice of words (unlike Laura Ingalls Wilder, who, when someone pointed out that saying "no people, only Indians" suggested that Indians were not people, said that was not her intention, and agreed to a change, if I'm remembering this correctly, which I'm probably not, exactly).

But as a teacher who has witnessed children's reactions to books that diminish their ancestors, even to non-people, as Aunt Sally's words do--I can't think of a classroom where I would want to teach Huckleberry Finn. And as I understand it, this is the intention of the re-vision, to make a version that teachers could offer to students.

Ultimately, I'm inclined to agree with B--forget about trying to "fix" Huckleberry Finn; teach Elijah of Buxton, for example, instead.

Anonymous said...

I think that as long as you have one child reading "No'm. Killed a *snicker* "slave* *snicker*." you really haven't changed anything.

I used to think that Huckleberry Finn was a great American novel that should be taught in schools. Now I think it's a great American novel.

Helen Frost said...

Wish we could edit these things. I misread what what B. is suggesting. But yes, write new books, and come at this from all different approaches.

Anon. 7:11-- Yes, maybe we could revise the canon instead of the books.

Thank you Roger, for offering this article--it's interesting and thoughtful, and as always, you generate good conversation.

Sheila Berenson said...

Thank you, Roger, for your posting. I too feel the power of Twain is lost when a key word is changed. Think of all the discussions lost when the terms are watered down to nothingness.

Helen Frost said...

I keep thinking about all this--I hope it's clear that I don't think we should go back and put words like "enslaved person" in Mark Twain's mouth (book). I can't endorse this revised version any more than I can imagine teaching the real book (though a good friend tells me she has successfully--by spending a lot of time on context-- taught it to inner-city 8th graders; she's a wonderful teacher and I believe her).

Is there a more volatile mixture than racism, language, and authority? I'll keep living with the questions, holding the easy answers at bay, and appreciating the conversation.

Genevieve said...

"History as it is taught in the history classroom is often denatured and dry. You can keep your distance from it if you choose. Slaveholding was evil. Injustice was the law of the land. History books teach that. But they don't require you to look the perpetrators of that evil in the eye and find yourself looking at a kind, gentle, good-hearted Aunt Sally. They don't make you understand that it was not the villains who made the system work, but the ordinary folks, the good folks, the folks, who did nothing more than fail to question the set of circumstances that surrounded them, who failed to judge that evil as evil and who deluded themselves into thinking they were doing good, earning safe passage for themselves into heaven."

Melinda said...

Usually I'm a purist, especially when it comes to Twain. But at the same time, I can see why Gribbin is taking out the n-word. See, I don't have to go out and deal with people calling me "n," nor do I have to deal with the more subtle racism that's taken the place of that word these days. So the true effect of the n-word really flies over my head. I understand the word hurts, but I don't feel, on a truly deep, personal level, how that word might be like a thorn that you can never pull out, but damn it hurts.

So I say, more power to 'em. Twain's survived every rewritten edition of Huck Finn thus far. He and Huck are going to be fine.

Helen Frost said...

Thanks for posting that essay, Genevieve. If anyone has a hard time finding it, paste the URL into the search engine and add the "ml" on the end (html got cut short).

Roger Sutton said...

My feelings about Huck Finn as curricular reading have changed since I wrote that column. Back then, I thought that attempts to whitewash the book were ignorant and rather stunningly missed its point. I still believe that but also think that Twain's use of the word nigger, however artistically correct, might present too much of a roadblock for teachers in high school classrooms. It all depends on the teacher and the students--then again, so much does.

Debbie Reese said...

The other changes made are in TOM SAWYER. "Injun" was changed to "Indian" and "half-breed" changed to "half-blood."

I think the changes are a mistake. I uploaded an essay at my site.

Jadedmastermind said...

The one phrase from that book that stands out the most is "He was a mighty good nigger, Jim was." It is a jarring juxtaposition - a compliment right next to a hideous racial slur. In that one sentence, Huck both praises and degrades Jim. Although Huck thinks highly of Jim, he still views him as subhuman, and he's still a racist. Change it to "He was a mighty good man, Jim was" and Huck ceases to be a racist. The phrase loses its irony, its brutal implication of racism, and becomes instead a simple compliment.

And when Huck says "I knowed he was white inside" this implies that Huck still thinks of other niggers as subhuman. Huck is still a racist at this point, and thinks of Jim as an exception to the rule. Change the phrase to "I knowed he was good" and the implied assumptions about other blacks disappear. That single change drastically alters Huck's character and dilutes Twain's message about racism.

The irony of "I knowed he was white inside" extends to today's youth. Today however, the sad fact is that the ones saying it are likely to be urban black youth who use phrases like "Uncle Tom" and "Oreo Cookie" to deride fellow black students who strive for academic acheivement. Today's Huck Finns are paradoxically black. That's one message that today's black youth desperately need. Jim was the one purely good character in the book, superior in every way to the white characters in the book.

Katie Davis said...

I interviewed Dr. Gribben on my kidlit podcast yesterday. I was against changing a word of Twain's genius, but, shocked as I am to say it, after 45 minutes of one-to-one talking with this man, I've got to say, I'm on the fence. I want more kids exposed to Huck Finn, and if the schools aren't going to let them read it if it has the N-word in it, I have to reconsider my original stance. And yet that makes me uncomfortable too.

If you want to listen:

Helen Frost said...

Debbie, thanks for posting the link to your essay. It makes me smile, the idea that kids won't know what an Injun is if nobody clues them in by changing it to Indian.
But it seriously gets at something I've been trying to think through, too--that I hope we've made some progress, and that we should think twice about introducing things to contemporary children for the sake of historical accuracy, if those things are hurtful to any potential reader.
Children do pick up on clues that an author knows they exist, which makes me think that they must also be fully aware that they are not included in the intended audience for a book. And nothing makes me stop reading faster than when that happens to me. (For example, male writers writing about women.)

Helen Frost said...

I mean--I hope this is obvious!--writing about women in such a way that you can tell it hasn't occurred to them that women may be among their readers.

Roger Sutton said...

I haven't read the new edition, but if its effect is to make Huck's racism less racist, I question the value of teaching the book. Wouldn't it be better to introduce the real book later than to use a whitewashed one earlier?

Debbie Reese said...


Helen Frost said...

Yes, I agree--while children are developing their sense of their place in society, it seems risky to offer them books where racism is portrayed as fact, without offering some emotional guidance. I don't mean didactic, and I can't find my copy of Elijah of Buxton that I mentioned as an example of a book I'd offer young readers instead of Huck Finn. But I remember that Elijah struggles with tears as he confronts the reality of slavery; there's an elder who speaks with great emotion and eloquence about the word "nigger." (I think Curtis may have made the whole thing clear without using the word himself. "What kind of baby do you think..." etc. Something like that.)

And Roger, I want to say, when I made that first cryptic comment, pulling one sentence out of your thoughtful and truthful essay, it was out of a feeling of frustration that everywhere I turned people were coming down so hard on this new edition, talking about the stupidity of it without any discussion of the reasons someone might have thought it was a good or necessary idea. I was just trying to shake the tree a bit, and that sentence was where I grabbed the branch.


candlewycke said...

Wonderful and insightful post. You are correct that Wallace is guilty of omission but what is worse is that he is guilty of the same sort of historical revision that created the myth of the the lost cause in the South and that diminished the importance of the issue of slavery to the Civil War to begin with. In one fell swoop Wallace has negated the importance of "that peculiar institution" to the history of America and to African Americans, he has reduced the worthy feat of forging a culture out of oppression to a curious happenstance with no lasting merit and most important of all he has tarnished the hard work of men and women of all colors who worked towards the freeing of Slaves and then towards true equality. The truth is that in their lives both Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King dealt with commonplace word "nigger" and it was their dealing with it, and the way theyd ealt with it that brought about positive change. We mus'nt forget that it was a little book written by the abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe that began a transformation in the minds of many Americans in regards to Blacks, both free and enslaved and she used that word to great effect. It is no different than Twains use of the same. Remove the word from history and you remove the history that launched the word and that serves no one!

Rita said...

One of the best things about reading books is getting to know the mindset of the narrator. It's a great way to learn how and why people thought and acted how they did, especially in books like Huck Finn. In a book written a hundred years ago and set in the antebellum era, that aspect of literature is so helpful in understanding the time period. Before reading Huck Finn last year for a class, I'd never read anything by Mark Twain. I can't say that I care for Huck as a character, nor did I really enjoy Twain's style (much too episodic for my taste), but the vocabulary was a major factor in the book as a whole. Without the uneducated southern white boy using the language he does, how would readers today know that similar children in the South 150 years ago actually DID say similar phrases? It's a lesson in American culture, a culture that is still present (sadly) and should still be recognized. Changing the language would, to me, negate much of what Twain wrote.