Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is a classic.
Okay, that gets us past the obvious part. What does that mean? Here’s an except from the definition provided by my desktop dictionary widget:
- judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind : a classic novel | a classic car.
- remarkably and instructively typical : I had all the classic symptoms of flu.
- 1 a work of art of recognized and established value : his books have become classics.
- a thing that is memorable and a very good example of its kind : he’s hoping that tomorrow’s game will be a classic…
ORIGIN early 17th cent.: from French classique or Latin classicus ‘belonging to a class or division,’ later ‘of the highest class,’ from classis (see class ).
In a newly edited edition of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, the controversial n-word, as well as the word “injun,” has been replaced by the word “slave.” According to an article in Publisher’s Weekly, Twain scholar Alan Gribben and NewSouth Books are trying to create an edition that will encourage Twain’s work to be once again read widely in schools.
Is this censorship?
I am personally opposed to institutional or government censorship, which is defined by the same obliging widget as “the practice of officially examining books, movies, etc., and suppressing unacceptable parts.” Huckleberry Finn has already been banned in many schools, and that’s the problem this edition seeks to address. The editor and publishers are hoping that this sanitized version will be admitted into the halls of bland and will open Twain’s world to a generation of students who may otherwise never read his works.
As long as the classic version remains available, this edition is simply another version, and is not unforgivable. After all, you can already find Huck Finn in many formats and editions including:
- Severely abridged
- Retold in vocabulary considered appropriate for 9-12 year-olds
- With character lessons added (!!!)
- Hacked into sections of a few chapters each
- Graphic novel/comic book
- And more I’ve probably missed, including the musical version below.
Therefore, since Twain’s version of the book is widely available and no effort is being made to gather copies and burn them (yet), and as I’m unaware of any efforts to round up and penalize readers of the original version, I think I’ll wait a bit before I start waving the censorship banner.
The point is that people have never been able to keep their grubby hands off great art. Show me a great work, and I’ll show you something that sparks a greater-than-average emotional response, something that communicates across time, space, and worldview. That’s one reason art remains alive, vibrant, part of the culture. That’s why you’ll hear Vivaldi’s Four Seasons backing a computer commercial, or see the Mona Lisa recreated in M&Ms. (Oddly, that’s probably also why misguided educators imagine it’s a good idea to tack trivia questions onto a classic work of literature, but that’s a topic for another day.)
Why it matters
That’s also the reason that it matters when someone decides Huckleberry Finn will be better without the n-word. Remove that one word, and the book’s emotional impact is diluted. Reduce the emotional impact, and the work flattens. History is distorted, and there is less to feel, less to discuss, less to think about, less to remember.
Dilute literature, and we’re all doomed. Words — carefully chosen words, accurate for the time and place of the text — powerfully convey a sense of time and place. School curriculum is steadily being reduced to the blandest of pablum by the knee-jerk reactions of hypersensitive adults. Dry textbook summaries are unlikely to spark any discussion, and with living literature off the table, there’s little or nothing to awaken thought or emotion. It’s little wonder that many students emerge from institutional schooling inoculated against serious thought.
Twain’s entire body of work not only reveals a sensitivity toward injustice, but it also paints a vivid picture of the society and issues of his day. It’s part of the literary lens through which we can see where we’ve been, contemplate where we are, and consider where we are going. Authors are the artists whose word pictures help us decide what kind of people we want to be. Words matter. Gribben’s edition is doubtless well-intentioned and suitable for the use he intends, but I will not be recommending it for Excellence in Literature.
“Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”
(Edmund Burke, British Statesman)