Tuesday, January 11, 2011
In approaching American literary classics, explanation is preferable to revision.
We believe removing certain language in new versions of two Mark Twain novels is misguided, although we understand the reasoning.
Alan Gribben, a Twain scholar and English professor from Alabama, is working with New South Books to replace certain words — which modern readers may find offensive — in a combined version of “The Adventurers of Huckleberry Finn” and “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”
The most significant change is “slave” replaces the n-word, which we choose not to use in a contemporary editorial. Among other changes: “Indian Joe” replaces “Injun Joe” and “half-blood” replaces “half-breed.”
Gribben defends his revision with the claim: “It’s such a shame that one word should be a barrier between a marvelous reading experience and a lot of readers.”
We disagree with that assessment.
Literature, like history, must be understood in the context of its times. We must learn from our past — what occurred and what was written — not revise it.
Henry Sweets, curator of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum in Hannibal, characterized “Huck Finn” as “certainly an anti-racism work of the first degree,” and added,”to start changing the words in it starts changing the effectiveness of the book.”
We don’t find Twain’s use of the nword to be a barrier, but we do find it disconcerting.
That’s exactly as it should be.
The word should give us pause. It should make us ponder concepts including racism and tolerance. It should make us contemplate not only how society has changed, but how much.
Rather than replace the author’s language, we would urge Gribben and other revisionists to provide a foreword, explaining and instructing how language, and attitudes, have changed.
We must preserve and learn from our literary heritage, not eliminate what makes us uncomfortable.
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