Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Huckleberry Finn Gets a Whitewashing

First edition cover
So, you've read Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn and struggled to reconcile your discomfort with the use of the word "nigger" (219 times) with your sense that it's the word that would have been used by the narrator, an uneducated young man steeped in the language of racist southerners in the 1840's, when the novel is set.  Reading that text and grappling with that word is like a rite of passage.  But it's not comfortable.  Neither is Twain's use of the word "injun," or "savage."
So, in steps NewSouth Books, providing readers with a "nigger" and "injun"-free text, replacing all the instances of the n-word with the word "slave."  And "injun" with Indian.  Safe?  Yes.  But Twain knew what he was doing. Sure, you can make the replacement so readers no longer have to overcome this use of words that Twain knew was offensive.  But offering up a volume that avoids the word entirely? It makes it impossible to understand Twain's view that Huck--through whom every instance of the word appears--has "a sound heart and a deformed conscience."
One of the characters in Huckleberry Finn who uses the word emphatically is Huck's father, Pap.  Note how the two passages below differ, keeping in mind that this racist man is on a rampage, railing drunkenly on why a black man should be considered property:
  "Oh, yes, this is a wonderful govment, wonderful. Why, looky here. There was a free nigger there from Ohio -- a mulatter, most as white as a white man. He had the whitest shirt on you ever see, too, and the shiniest hat; and there ain't a man in that town that's got as fine clothes as what he had; and he had a gold watch and chain, and a silver-headed cane -- the awfulest old gray-headed nabob in the State. And what do you think? They said he was a p'fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything. And that ain't the wust. They said he could vote when he was at home. Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to? It was 'lection day, and I was just about to go and vote myself if I warn't too drunk to get there; but when they told me there was a State in this country where they'd let that nigger vote, I drawed out. I says I'll never vote agin. Them's the very words I said; they all heard me; and the country may rot for all me -- I'll never vote agin as long as I live. And to see the cool way of that nigger -- why, he wouldn't a give me the road if I hadn't shoved him out o' the way. I says to the people, why ain't this nigger put up at auction and sold? -- that's what I want to know. And what do you reckon they said? Why, they said he couldn't be sold till he'd been in the State six months, and he hadn't been there that long yet. There, now -- that's a specimen. They call that a govment that can't sell a free nigger till he's been in the State six months. Here's a govment that calls itself a govment, and lets on to be a govment, and thinks it is a govment, and yet's got to set stock-still for six whole months before it can take a hold of a prowling, thieving, infernal, white-shirted free nigger, and -- "
And here's the expurgated version.  Would Pap NOT use the term we now find so offensive?  I don't think so:
  "Oh, yes, this is a wonderful govment, wonderful. Why, looky here. There was a free slave there from Ohio -- a mulatter, most as white as a white man. He had the whitest shirt on you ever see, too, and the shiniest hat; and there ain't a man in that town that's got as fine clothes as what he had; and he had a gold watch and chain, and a silver-headed cane -- the awfulest old gray-headed nabob in the State. And what do you think? They said he was a p'fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything. And that ain't the wust. They said he could vote when he was at home. Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to? It was 'lection day, and I was just about to go and vote myself if I warn't too drunk to get there; but when they told me there was a State in this country where they'd let that slave vote, I drawed out. I says I'll never vote agin. Them's the very words I said; they all heard me; and the country may rot for all me -- I'll never vote agin as long as I live. And to see the cool way of that slave -- why, he wouldn't a give me the road if I hadn't shoved him out o' the way. I says to the people, why ain't this slave put up at auction and sold? -- that's what I want to know. And what do you reckon they said? Why, they said he couldn't be sold till he'd been in the State six months, and he hadn't been there that long yet. There, now -- that's a specimen. They call that a govment that can't sell a free slave till he's been in the State six months. Here's a govment that calls itself a govment, and lets on to be a govment, and thinks it is a govment, and yet's got to set stock-still for six whole months before it can take a hold of a prowling, thieving, infernal, white-shirted free slave, and -- " 
Yes, the book is in the public domain, and you can add Zombie Jim to Huck's adventure or the Undead to Tom's.  But don't pretend it's the same book.  Easier to teach?  Yes, and so is Curious George.
    

3 comments:

Phil B said...

When I read about this it floored me. Particularly that the whitewashing is being done by two professors... I mean, apart from destroying one of the key points of the book, shining a light on the heinous nature of slavery, how badly will it mangle the story. You are absolutely correct in that Pap as a character would never say slave - it is not in his character.

On a side note, there is a very interesting book out there call Finn. It is the story of Pap and tries to get to the heart of why Pap is who he is...

JN said...

I've seen the book Finn, Phil, and I have it, started to read it, and got sidelined.

I suspect the version of the novel is just a kind of gimmick, but it gives a guy an "edition" when he needs a little boost for his promotion. Strange but true.

stacey said...

This move is totally irresponsible! Before I go on an unnecessary rant, I'll just share this Daily Show bit about the same issue. It's very funny and makes some excellent points.

http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/tue-january-11-2011/mark-twain-controversy