Bad Words and Great Books

There's a new wrinkle in the endless controversy about Huckleberry Finn, with NewSouth Books preparing an expurgated edition replacing "nigger" with "slave" throughout. Sentiment in the parts of the Internet I frequent is mostly against the change, which has been made with the goal of getting it back on high school reading lists, which it has fallen off in many places because of concerns over the language. (Note that it doesn't appear to have been done in response to any great outcry for such an edition: "Mr. Gribben said no schools had expressed interest yet in teaching the book.")

It's a tough problem. On the one hand, you can say that this is a case of hypersensitivity taken to an unpleasant extreme, and that people should suck it up and look past the language to Twain's actual point, which is profoundly anti-racist. Which is true as far as it goes, but the fact is people will get bothered, and they will complain, and schools and teachers have lots of other headaches to deal with. At some point you need to cut your losses.

The other main response is more or less what Sean Carroll says: "if, in the judgment of the teachers, this creates such a barrier that it does more harm than good to assign the book, the answer is extremely obvious -- don't assign the book." But this raises some problems of its own, namely that it's very difficult to talk about American literature without Twain, and if you're going to teach Twain, this is the book to teach. He wrote other books-- my 10th grade English class did Pudd'nhead Wilson (helpfully available from Google, complete with regrettable cover graphic), but that's kind of minor-- but in every respect but the language, Huckleberry Finn is an ideal book for high school (or even earlier-- we read in when I was in fifth grade, believe it or not): many kids that age can relate to Huck, the message is unambiguous but not screechingly obvious, it's tremendously entertaining, and it covers a historical era that continues to shape American life today. If one of the goals in teaching literature in school is to help students learn to understand where we are and how we got there, you ought to be teaching Huckleberry Finn, and there aren't a lot of good substitutes.

So, it's a tricky situation. On the one hand, it would be a real shame to see such a good book pushed into being something that's only read by college or graduate students. But then again, it's not hard to see why schools would decide that it's not worth the hassle.

Either way, I'm inclined to think that editing the text to conform to modern sensibilities is a Bad Thing. The loss of the book from the curriculum is probably less bad than the precedent of scrubbing words that people don't like. There aren't any perfect replacements, but there are lots of other good books, and it's probably not bad to shake up the curriculum a little every now and then. I can understand the impulse to do it, but I think it's ultimately a mistake.

The real tragedy, here, is that there aren't enough words considered hateful in The Scarlet Letter. Because I'd shed no tears over an effort to remove that godawful tedious crap from reading lists across the nation...

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To paraphrase my comment on Sean's piece, there is an assumption that the unchanged text is a more accurate and faithful representation of Twain's work. I don't think this is always the case, words do change meanings over time, 21st century English is different from 19th century English, and an act of translation is appropriate when that fact significantly deforms the text. So, if "nigger" was not intended originally to be a racial slur, but just as a common reference to a person of color, the text with the word changed is more accurate, not less so. Same goes for less loaded terms, it is not just political correctness at play here.

Although I don't live in the USA, we've had our share of educational "controversies" like this in the UK and it always leaves me feeling profoundly depressed about the state of teaching.

How on earth can children be expected to gain an understanding & respect for how our culture, norms and language have changed over time if they're not reading the original texts? What better way to demonstrate the huge progress that's been made in equality and civil rights than to look back to what was considered acceptable then, and contrast to today?

It just seems so obvious to me that any text older than, say, 20-30 years should be treated not just as literary material but also as a history lesson. Children are more than capable of understanding this - it seems a shame that apparently schools are not.

I don't get it. How is "slave" a synonym for the "n" word? Were there not free African-Americans at that time, and always (in the North)? Why not substitute "Negro", or "colored" instead? Still too controversial? The word "Negro" was asked in The 2010 Census under "What is your Race" question, and many older African-Americans answered to that. Then again, why not lose the word "Race," seeing as how there's only one human race, and substitute with "Ethnicity?"

My point, this stuff never ends. On the other hand, imagine you're in a majority-black school. Would you like reading that word?

Hear you on the Scarlett Letter, and all the old English novels of 100 years ago, like "Wuthering Heights" and novels by Hardy and Eyre. All of these, and Shakespeare, were in vernacular and idiomatic English little used and understood today. Also, those novels were "chick" books, Romances, since most of the teachers who taught us were "chicks." What? Don't say "chicks?"

Now ... imagine that the girl was white.

To paraphrase my comment on Sean's piece, there is an assumption that the unchanged text is a more accurate and faithful representation of Twain's work. I don't think this is always the case, words do change meanings over time, 21st century English is different from 19th century English, and an act of translation is appropriate when that fact significantly deforms the text. So, if "nigger" was not intended originally to be a racial slur, but just as a common reference to a person of color, the text with the word changed is more accurate, not less so.

I agree with that (though I don't think that "nigger" was ever a neutral term, even in the time period of the book), but I don't think the appropriate response is to "translate" the text. It's a little like doing "translations" of Shakespeare-- yeah, updating the language would make the meaning clearer, but the original language is the whole point of reading Shakespeare.

The way to deal with language drift is to, well, talk about language drift. You provide footnotes and explanatory essays and that sort of thing, but you don't change the words of the story. That way, you can turn it into a valuable lesson about how language and attitudes change over time, rather than sweeping the whole issue under the rug.

Thomas Bowdler rightly lives in infamy for publishing similarly edited versions of Shakespeare's plays. Shakespeare put quite a few dirty jokes in his plays, some of which were even obvious to me as a high schooler reading the plays nearly 400 years later. I have a similar low opinion of Bowdler's modern day successors. I agree with Jim @2 that the evolution of both language and cultural standards is an important part of studying Twain (or Shakespeare). Fifth grade may be a bit young to force students to confront these realities (I didn't encounter Huckleberry Finn before eighth grade, possibly as late as tenth), but students will have to confront them sooner or later.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 07 Jan 2011 #permalink

Beware of a polarizing false dichotomy in this debate. There's vast middle ground between "never do this" and "this is always the right thing to do."

I vote for always assigning the original, but secretly keep the phone number of the "translated" edition's publisher in your Rolodex, just in case. Resist minor protests, but if the volume of protests becomes continuously disruptive and intolerable in a particular classroom, switch to the revised text as your Emergency Back-Up Twain. You hope to never use it. Sort of like a reserve parachute.

By Emory Kimbrough (not verified) on 07 Jan 2011 #permalink

The book should be left unchanged. The problem does not lie in the text...if a problem exists, it lies in the reader. The biggest point which should be kept in mind is that the reason the word nigger is so hated today is because of the way it has been used historically. Today it is an offensive perjorative most people wouldn't use simply because it is like uttering the phrase cunt for no apparent reason. But, the big reason to allow the word to stand is because it was the common way to label a whole group of people, and it was a representation of how that entire group was seen. All of Clemons society referred to this group as niggers. Clemons was in the minority in recognizing that these were in fact human beings. By removing this word, and failing to recognize the historical degradation of a whole group and changing it to something more polite we fail to recognize a whole period of time in our own history and thus a part of the human condition. I was about to rent the movie, "Flyboys." A movie I wanted to watch for the aircraft. What always stopped me was the impression I got that the American fliers in the film were very accepting of the black pilot. African Americans at the time were very unaccepted by their own countrymen and many wished to stay in France where they were treated much better. We shouldn't keep changing stories, stories about history simply because the way things were makes us uncomfortable. We have to acknowledge what we are, what we were and how things were.

By Mike Olson (not verified) on 07 Jan 2011 #permalink

It reminds me of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, which is extremely offensive to Jews, but is still taught in the 9th grade in many schools. After all, it IS Shakespeare!
Good teachers try to discuss the antisemitism in this play, but many don't even really know just how horrible the tragedy is, and are not really competent to discuss it. Shakespeare himself never saw nor met a Jew -- they were expelled from England in 1290. Having Shylock's daughter convert to Christianity is far from a happy ending -- it meant she was dead to the Jewish community.
But the answer is NOT to sweep historical reality under the carpet. It's education and more education for the Christian, white majority (not for long) in this country. We should be teaching the REAL history of Europe, for example, not just the kings and queens and battles and the Protestant Reformation, but also the history of the minorities, like Jews, and Roma and Sinti (Gypsies) who were brutally harassed and murdered by devout Christians for centuries before Hitler came up with his brand-new old idea. (The Roma and Sinti are STILL being persecuted in Eastern Europe).
Let's just take off the rose-colored glasses of English and History teaching, and go for clarity instead.

By Natalie Sera (not verified) on 08 Jan 2011 #permalink