Second-Guessing Mark Twain

By Yul

Mark Twain’s masterpieces, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, are becoming politically correct, thanks to Montgomery, Alabama, publisher NewSouth Books, who is producing a new combined edition.

On the advice of some local hot-shot Twain scholar named Alan Gribben, they are replacing the 219 instances of the word nigger with slave.

And they think leading schoolkids to believe that Twain said being black = slavery is an improvement.

Just for good measure, they’re also replacing injun with indian, because NOBODY in the South speaks in a dialect that mangles spelling. (For the record, southern squirrels think they’re squirls).

Once again, form triumphs over substance. A word is granted unlimited power so people can fixate on the word itself (and show their sensitivity by calling it “the n-word”) instead of thinking about what it MEANS and cluing in their kids.

Instead of letting Twain deliver his timeless message about man’s inhumanity to man, they’d rather let American kids grow up naïve and ignorant of the past’s realities so they can commit future atrocities and think they invented them. And so our stupid future leaders can get their asses handed to them by other countries who valued honesty and knowledge and actually prepared their next generation to avoid blunders already committed and recorded.

When nobodies like NewSouth and Gribbens are allowed to second-guess one of America’s all-time most insightful writers, where does it stop?

I’ll tell you. It doesn’t stop.

Next, NewSouth may decide to revise Gone With the Wind so the Confederacy wins and southerners can finally feel good about themselves and get a life.

(The Richmond Times-Dispatch — Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy, don’t you forget it — made its first 2011 front-page headline about the Civil War. No lie. ‘Round these parts, there ain’t nothin’ goin’ on in the world bigger than a 145-year-old war.)

And if we continue our purge of all literature that might upset or agitate somebody, somewhere, we should probably “fix” other classics so they won’t offend, like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Darned and Henry Miller’s Tropic of a Suspicious Lump.

13 Responses to Second-Guessing Mark Twain

  1. I think people have gone overboard with “political correctness”….so many have developed really, really thin skins.

    I grew up with a father who was an Editorial Cartoonist (Ray Osrin), even WE were the target of his genius sarcasm….

    I say get it together already….enough is enough

  2. catsworking says:

    When somebody picks up a novel that was written in a previous century, they should expect it to be written in the language of the time, no matter how offensive some words may have become. It should spark a discussion of how language evolves, not, “Oh, dear. We must pretend the ‘n-word’ never existed.”

    It’s ridiculous that schools ban the work of some of our greatest writers because their wording or ideas aren’t “clean” enough. They’re just breeding a generation of ignorant boobs who will expect everything sanitized for their enjoyment. The kids themselves use language a LOT worse than anything Mark Twain ever wrote, and they probably hear it at home out of their parents’ mouths. To treat them like hothouse orchids with fragile sensibility is absurd. Better to let them see the words and explain correctly what they mean than to pretend the words don’t exist, or let the kids gather their own twisted meaning from the lyrics of some rap song.

    This whole argument that the books should be “fixed” because high school kids get “uncomfortable” and can’t grasp the concept of racism — and that teachers are incapable of leading a discussion to clarify matters — just bears out what I’m saying. If the kids can’t handle Mark Twain by that age, the education system turned them into ignorant boobs before the 9th grade.

  3. Noel McWormald says:

    Princeton professor Melissa Harris-Perry made an interesting comment about the word “slavery” on one of the MSNBC shows last night. Calling Jim “Slave Jim” actually identifies him for all time as a slave–a more palatable idea for southerners perhaps? The correct term nowadays is not “slave,” but “enslaved person” which identifies the person (i.e., slave) as the victim of a crime and not as a possession. “Enslaved Person Jim” sounds ridiculous… Perhaps teachers could use the original Huck Finn to teach things like irony… Trust me, if a teacher doesn’t explain things, kids will continue to count on their own misinformed brains to form their opinions of the world. I had a girl today, while talking about feminism, inform the class that lesbians were “invented” in the 1970s! ADULTS MUST HELP STUDENTS understand the world–including the genius that was Mark Twain!

  4. catsworking says:

    Readers, as an FYI, Noel’s mom is a teacher.

    It always annoys me whenever someone gets the bright idea to take education out of the classroom and throw it in the lap of… who? The parents? I’m sure there are many kids who probably hear their parents using the n-word in the worst possible context, and now they’ll have nobody to set them straight.

    Like the 2 kids who shot up Columbine, and all the pathetic losers who have come after them. Did they learn how to behave like that in school? No, they learned it at home, playing violent video games, watching movies, doing Internet research, assembling arsensals of weapons — while their clueless fucking parents were sitting in the next room ignoring the little darlings.

    If people don’t think certain teachers are up to the job of educating kids on the harsh realities of history and life, then they don’t need to be switching words in classic books. They need to be switching teachers.

  5. adele says:

    I was introduced to Huck Finn in my junior year of high school, in an American Lit class. I remember some discomfort, at first, over the use of the n-word, but our teacher quickly got the class on track, explaining that this would have been common usage, for a boy of Huck’s background and for the times. End of story.

    Yul, newshound (sorry for the mixed metaphor) that you are, you’re probably aware that Roger Ebert caused a heap o’ controversy, when he tweeted that he’d rather be called an n-word than a slave. He’s since apologized, but he blogged about Huck Finn and quoted a passage, which was so beautiful that I’ve decided to read the book again. It’s funny, I was introduced to The Great Gatsby, which is probably my favorite American novel, in that American Lit. class, and I re-read it every few years, each time finding it richer. I was also introduced to The Sun Also Rises, which I’ve read a few times, but I’ve never re-read Huck Finn. So out of all this, Mark Twain has sold another book — and I won’t be buying the New South Publishing edition.

  6. catsworking says:

    Karen says she read the book on her own after finding a whole set of Mark Twain novels in her grandmother’s basement one summer. It was never required reading in school. She doesn’t even remember the use of the offending words. In fact, she can’t remember EVER reading a book where words offended her.

    I agree with Ebert that I’d rather be called an n-word than a slave — or a dog.

  7. zappa says:

    Im thrilled to learn that students are still reading books


  8. MorganLF says:

    I just pulled up a copy of Huck Finn and I have to admit that in chapter 2 there are seven “nigger” references in one paragraph. I don’t recall that as a kid.

    So did we read a sanitized version then?

    Growing up in a house where that word was plain NOT USED, I’m sure I’d have remembered reading that.

    In any event I would never have the hubris to rewrite Twain. He was a genius and damn well knew what he was doing. So all those “niggers” were put there for a reason, and that’s where they should stay. He knew what he was doing.

    Don’t you think he’s having a hearty laugh over the whole thing?

  9. catsworking says:

    Karen here.

    Morgan, I think I didn’t really notice the word because it meant nothing to me, growing up in northern Massachusetts. I didn’t know any black people. I do remember my Italian grandmother using it to describe any black person, and she did it in a belittling way, but I just thought she was being stupid. She didn’t know any black people, either. She also had an irrational hatred of the French. I never knew where all the prejudice was coming from, but figured she picked it up from her parents, who came over on the boat. MY parents never talked like that.

    It wasn’t until we moved to New Jersey when I was 14 that I saw first-hand what racial tension was like.

    I think Mark Twain is shaking his head and wondering why 100 years have passed and we STILL haven’t managed to get over the childish custom of calling people names based on things they can’t control that don’t mean anything in the long run anyway.

  10. MorganLF says:

    There in nothing irrational about hating the French, collaborateurs!

  11. adele says:

    Morgan, I’m a die-hard Francophile, but I have to admit that I was amused when I was in France, to see monuments to the Resistance in every little town I visited — of course there was a Resistance, but now it looks like every single person, alive during WWII was a resistance fighter.

    I once knew a guy, rather crude and unsophisticated, who did make me laugh by saying, “The French fight with their feet and f*#k with their faces.”

  12. catsworking says:

    In 1996, I sailed into Le Havre on the last great French Line ocean liner, the SS France. She had been transformed some years earlier into the first mega-cruise ship, Norway, but that didn’t stop the French from turning out in force that day to welcome her back. They LOVED that ship. (Although after she’d been taken out of service in 1974, they let her rot in Le Havre until a Norwegian bought her and gave her a new life in Miami. And when she had a boiler explosion in 2003, they couldn’t scrape together the money to buy her for scrap so they could save her and turn her into a static attraction like the Queen Mary in Long Beach. No, they just sat by and let the flagship of their nation be torn to bits on a filthy beach in India.)

    Anyway, I was standing next to an old guy who looked out over the cheering mob and said, “Look at them! Vive la France my ass. If it weren’t for us, they’d all be speaking German!”

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