Friday, January 7, 2011

Censoring Twain


Stop me if you've heard this one before...

The chattering classes - mostly on the left and right coasts - are all Gaga over the latest attempt to sanitize Twain.  For some background and discussion, please see:

"Censoring Twain" - on the Chronicle of Higher Education Brainstorm Blog

"Do Word Changes Alter Huckleberry Finn" - On the New York Times Room for Debate

From the Project Gutenberg Version of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn":

"It warn't the grounding--that didn't keep us back but a little. We blowed out a cylinder-head."

"Good gracious! anybody hurt?"

"No'm. Killed a nigger."
"Well, it's lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.

Now Twain knew exactly what he was doing here, even ET or Michelle Bachmann might get the message.

But it is complicated, as Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor, who is associate dean and the Carville Dickinson Benson Research Professor of Law at George Washington University, put it:

It’s complicated, “nigger” is. I suffered through Huckleberry Finn in high school, with the white kids going out of their way to say “Nigger Jim” and the teacher’s tortured explanation that Twain’s “nigger” didn’t really mean nigger, or meant it ironically, or historically, or symbolically. Whatever. I could live my whole life fine if I never read that book again. 

His colleague, Professor Margaret Soltan at GWU noted:

“I’m a Jew and an English professor. If I were so hurt and offended by every use of the word ‘kike’ and similar slurs — in a work of art that I refused to engage with the work, I’d not only be unemployed; I’d be an idiot,” Soltan told TheDC.
“You cannot grasp Huck’s ethical transformations in Twain’s story without first grasping the truth of his attitudes as they express themselves in his speech.”
Soltan told TheDC that it’s probably a good thing if readers are offended by the term in Twain’s text because then they will have a strong understanding of the slur’s offensive implications.
“If his speech upsets you, that’s arguably all the better, since your response dramatizes the violence of the word, and the harsh reality of the attitudes it conveys,” Soltan said.
Your thoughts?


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