Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Don't Mess With Mark Twain


Being politically correct in the 21st century is well and good for those so inclined. But to push today’s credos onto the past is not only embarrassing, but wrong.

Auburn University professor Alan Gribben has taken it upon himself to make some changes in the first great American novel “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain. It is generally acclaimed as one of the supreme masterpieces of American literature.

Gribben’s version of "Huckleberry Finn" is well over due for some critics. He takes it upon himself to alter Twain’s classic with 21st century politically correct jargon. In the original Huck Finn the “N-word” appears 219 times. Gribben decides to clean up the story and substitutes the word “slave” for the “N-word.”

The word was common in Huck’s world and in mine when I was growing up in the 1940s. It was commonly what many baseball fans called Brooklyn’s third baseman, Jackie Robinson. Not meant as a compliment to the first black man to play in baseballs major leagues.

The use of the “N-word” in the 19th century of Mark Twain was unfortunate slang for “negro.” (Gribben omitted the word “Injun” entirely, though it was but a brogue-drawl of Illiterates in the West.)
Suppose the Holy Bible in the King James Version or one of the early originals in Greek and Hebrew got a revision taking out what offends our enlightened souls. In places Hebrew vulgarity is not fully translated in English. There is little need for a cherry-picked politically correct Bible.

In my April Fools’ column my use of “Japs” for Japanese during World War II was “edited” by one newspaper’s proof reader to read “Japanese.” Thereby losing the point. No matter that it was degrading to call our enemy “Japs,” it was common eighty to a hundred years ago. Germans were “Krauts” or worse, Italians were “blanked-blank wops” and so on. Even our Chinese allies against Japan were called “chinks,” or “gooks.” It was ugly, but it was a part of the times.

Much in history is not pretty, and some literature we could do without, criticize it, love it or hate it, but don’t change it. Professor Gribben says he changed the word because some schools refuse to teach the book with the original word in the text.

A work of art like “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is meant to be an accurate reflection of life as it was lived in the 19th century. Twain reveals, through humor and realism, the corruption, moral decay and intellectual impoverishment of the time and place.” (Easton Press publisher’s preface to a “Huck Finn” edition.)

Randall Kennedy, a law professor at Harvard University, says that the Latin word for black is “niger.” He writes “that once the word became an insult, it found a home everywhere.”

Joseph Conrad published his novel “The Nigger of the Narcissus: A Tale of the Sea” in 1897 about a West Indian black sailor on the merchant ship sailing from Bombay to London.
In the United States, Conrad’s novel was first published with the title “The Children of the Sea: A Tale of the Forecastle,” because no one would buy or read a book with the “N-word” in its title.

One can only imagine what Twain or Conrad would think of those who read into their work, rather than seeing what they saw. Don’t mess with history or literature. Learn from it.


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