Thursday, January 6, 2011

Does one word change "Huckleberry Finn"?

There's a lively debate about the impact of editing the author's description of Jim in Mark Twain's 1885 novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn appearing in today's New York Times. The NewSouth Publishing Co. is printing 7500 copies of the edited novel claiming the revision will encourage its teaching in classrooms. While changing the text of any book for a wider readership isn't anything new, this particular case brings up the point that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn really isn't a child's book, in the way that The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is. And although the books are related by character, by the latter's plot and narrative theme neither did Clemens mean it to be.

In many cases, Huckleberry Finn is one of the first novels young children read that addresses the mysterious and confounding world of adulthood (the next reading stepping-stone is often To Kill a Mockingbird; both books share common elements and narrative points of view. And Harper Lee's 1960 book is often challenged reading in the classroom as well.) Should children be able to read expurgated versions of classic books? Here is an excerpt from Thomas Glave's response in the Times discussion, entitled "Obscuring the Past."

.. Part of Huckleberry Finn’s power, irrespective of Twain’s intentions at the time, is that it unflinchingly discloses the very blitheness with which Huck addresses and talks about Jim (or any other black person) as a “nigger,” and thus the attitudes of many white people at the time about black people as well as blackness and whiteness. Huck is able to come of age as a white male partly because he does so in the presence of a (fully grown, adult) black male who for him will always be the racial “other,” though an “other” for whom he cares and who cares for him.

The reality is that, to Huck and many white people of the time, Jim would have been both a slave – that is, property to be owned and abused at the owner’s will – and a “nigger," the accepted way one referred to that particular property in the South at the time. The nuanced and particular differences between those two words, while connected in some ways, cannot, at least in the case of Huckleberry Finn, be blurred or muddied.

Thomas Glave

But perhaps even more urgently, it is precisely this abominable history – that of racism, slavery, and the violation and dehumanization of black people over centuries – which must be made clear to schoolchildren, high school students, and university students – to everyone -- if they and we are to become responsible, clear-thinking citizens who will ultimately be unafraid of confronting and grappling with the truth of this country’s bitter, byzantine history. ...

What does this unfortunate reality say to us today as we reflect on a history many of us would rather not contemplate? But an even more disturbing question might be: what will it mean for our future as a nation, and our futures as compassionate, humane people, if we refuse to take into account the violence of this history and its paradoxes and counternarratives?

An insistence on obfuscating the past and obscuring the truth of real events is itself violent; such obfuscation does violence not only to the memories of those who suffered, but to our own potential as human beings to remember, and who must be charged, toward our own greater humanity, never to forget.

Free access to O.E.D. for the next 30 days

Those word-lovers who didn't receive their hoped-for copy of the Oxford English Dictionary this holiday -- again -- can rejoice. The Language Hat web page reports there's free online access for a limited time. As the site clarifies: For a month, anyway. They're having a free trial of OED Online through February 5; login with "trynewoed"/"trynewoed." Hat tip to Ben Zimmer.

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