Saturday, January 8, 2011

quarter of a century

yesterday was my 25th birthday. i had a great day. i worked (which was no fun) but then i went to the blackhawks game that night which was great. they won in a shoot out and two of my favorite players scored; kane and toews. so over all it was a great birthday.

every day i get an email from the new york times with the days headlines. and yesterday one of the headlines was called this: light out, huck, they still want to civilize you. and it was written by michiko kukutani. the article was about how alan gribben, a professor of english at auburn university, at montgomery, alabama, has produced a new edition of mark twain’s novel, huckleberry finn, that replaces the word “nigger” with "slave".  Never mind that attaching the epithet slave to the character Jim — who has run away in a bid for freedom — effectively labels him as property, as the very thing he is trying to escape.


Nigger, which appears in the book more than 200 times, was a common racial epithet in the antebellum South, used by Twain as part of his characters’ vernacular speech and as a reflection of mid-19th-century social attitudes along the Mississippi River.


Haven’t we learned by now that removing books from the curriculum just deprives children of exposure to classic works of literature? Worse, it relieves teachers of the fundamental responsibility of putting such books in context — of helping students understand that “Huckleberry Finn” actually stands as a powerful indictment of slavery (with Nigger Jim its most noble character), of using its contested language as an opportunity to explore the painful complexities of race relations in this country. To censor or redact books on school reading lists is a form of denial: shutting the door on harsh historical realities — whitewashing them or pretending they do not exist.


Mr. Gribben’s effort to update “Huckleberry Finn” (published in an edition with “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” by NewSouth Books), ratifies the narcissistic contemporary belief that art should be inoffensive and accessible; that books, plays and poetry from other times and places should somehow be made to conform to today’s democratic ideals. It’s like the politically correct efforts in the ’80s to exile great authors like Conrad and Melville from the canon because their work does not feature enough women or projects colonialist attitudes.


Efforts to sanitize classic literature have a long, undistinguished history. Everything from Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” to Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” have been challenged or have suffered at the hands of uptight editors. There have even been purified versions of the Bible (all that sex and violence!). Sometimes the urge to expurgate (if not outright ban) comes from the right, evangelicals and conservatives, worried about blasphemy, profane language and sexual innuendo. Fundamentalist groups, for instance, have tried to have dictionaries banned because of definitions offered for words like hot, tail, ball and nuts.


In other cases the drive to sanitize comes from the left, eager to impose its own multicultural, feminist worldviews and worried about offending religious or ethnic groups. Michael Radford’s 2004 film version of “The Merchant of Venice” (starring Al Pacino) revised the play to elide potentially offensive material, serving up a nicer, more sympathetic Shylock and blunting tough questions about anti-Semitism. More absurdly, a British theater company in 2002 changed the title of its production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” to "the bellringer of notre dame."


Ballantine Books published an expurgated version of “Fahrenheit 451,” Ray Bradbury’s celebrated sci-fi classic about book banning, in which words like “hell” and “abortion” were deleted; it was reportedly 13 years before Mr. Bradbury became aware of the changes and demanded that the original version be restored.


Whether it comes from conservatives or liberals, there is a patronizing Big Brother aspect to these literary fumigations. We, the censors, need to protect you, the na├»ve, delicate reader. We, the editors, need to police writers (even those from other eras), who might have penned something that might be offensive to someone sometime. 

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