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Politically Correct Huck
January 4, 2011 9:30 AM   Subscribe

"He was a mighty good nigger [sic, recte slave], Jim was."

Twain scholar Alan Gribben and NewSouth Books plan to release a version of Huckleberry Finn, in a single volume with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, that does away with the "n" word (as well as the "in" word, "Injun") by replacing it with the word "slave."
posted by ericost (210 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
No.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:32 AM on January 4, 2011 [8 favorites]


Christ.
posted by spicynuts at 9:33 AM on January 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


I hope this idea falls flat on its ass.
posted by Melismata at 9:33 AM on January 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Stop that.
posted by steambadger at 9:34 AM on January 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


veto.
posted by empath at 9:35 AM on January 4, 2011


Oh. No. No.
posted by rtha at 9:36 AM on January 4, 2011


Public domain cuts both ways.
posted by Joe Beese at 9:36 AM on January 4, 2011 [12 favorites]


Agreed, Joe Beese. The book's in the public domain, and NewSouth Books has every right to sanitize it if they want to. That doesn't, however, make the project any less loathsome.

But, then, what would one expect from a publisher that CamelCaps its own name?
posted by steambadger at 9:38 AM on January 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Someone stop that silly ass cracker.
posted by pianomover at 9:39 AM on January 4, 2011 [12 favorites]


"What he suggested," said La Rosa, "was that there was a market for a book in which the n-word was switched out for something less hurtful, less controversial. We recognized that some people would say that this was censorship of a kind, but our feeling is that there are plenty of other books out there—all of them, in fact—that faithfully replicate the text, and that this was simply an option for those who were increasingly uncomfortable, as he put it, insisting students read a text which was so incredibly hurtful."

Are they seriously arguing that it's hurtful to make students read a book containing the word "nigger" as though the word were being spoken at them? The book is a portrait of a time past, a time that had already passed when Twain wrote it, and it's a "often scathing look at entrenched attitudes, particularly racism.*"

Replacing "nigger" with "slave" removes the vileness that is supposed to be there. If you white-wash stories, you often miss the point. Cruella de Vil would seem much less evil if you removed the reason why she wanted those 101 Dalmatians. Removing plot points, context, or even language can change a story dramatically.

*Wikipedia, natch.
posted by explosion at 9:40 AM on January 4, 2011 [12 favorites]


Congratulations, sir, you've just increased market share for my publication of Huckleberry Finn: The Unaltered Edition with Full Original Text.
posted by Faint of Butt at 9:40 AM on January 4, 2011 [7 favorites]


Seems to me that if people find the word offensive, its appearance in a piece of American literature provides a great springboard to talk about how language changes, and how opinion shifts as to what constitutes an offensive word.

Or we could just contribute to SEO turfing for the publisher. Either way.
posted by dubold at 9:41 AM on January 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Are they seriously arguing that it's hurtful to make students read a book containing the word "nigger" as though the word were being spoken at them?

Yes, that is in fact exactly what the vast majority of all challenges to the book do argue.
posted by blucevalo at 9:42 AM on January 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


Don't trust whitey.
posted by punkfloyd at 9:42 AM on January 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


blah blah, irony or whatever, but can we just agree, as a community, not to put the n-word on the front page?

Thanks.
posted by empath at 9:43 AM on January 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


That's fine if they want to publish a whitewashed edition, although their logic is beyond me. It will not be fine if school districts buy it and pass it off as Twain to their students.
posted by headnsouth at 9:44 AM on January 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


but can we just agree, as a community, not to put the n-word on the front page?

Veto.
posted by ericost at 9:45 AM on January 4, 2011 [57 favorites]


blah blah, irony or whatever, but can we just agree, as a community, not to put the n-word on the front page?

Thanks.


seconding this. o.O
posted by traversionischaracter at 9:45 AM on January 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


I can actually kind of see the point of what they were thinking: 'There are some kids out there who've never heard the word as anything other than a slur, and it might be scary to see it being thrown about in the context of a classic',

But I think that misses the point. Many times in the book when it's used, it's not used as a slur, but as a descriptor. Part of the name.

It is equally loathsome, of course, but it makes an important distinction; that racism was so institutionalized and part of the fabric, that it wasn't even seen as a pejorative, but a way to describe someone.

And there is a huge value in kids seeing that such a thing is possible, so that they can be vigilant in keeping watch to help make sure it doesn't happen again.
posted by quin at 9:46 AM on January 4, 2011 [9 favorites]


Are they seriously arguing that it's hurtful to make students read a book containing the word "nigger" as though the word were being spoken at them?

It's not an original argument. It's too bad, as Huck's decision to go to hell is one of the most anti-racist (and profound, IMO) moments in American literature. But to get there you have to slog through a lot of stuff, and if black students find it difficult maybe we ought to listen to them.
posted by Bookhouse at 9:48 AM on January 4, 2011 [7 favorites]


Meta
posted by empath at 9:49 AM on January 4, 2011


It made me shiver. And I about made up my mind to pray; and see if I couldn't try to quit being the kind of a boy I was, and be better. So I kneeled down. But the words wouldn't come. Why wouldn't they? It warn't no use to try and hide it from Him. Nor from me, neither. I knowed very well why they wouldn't come. It was because my heart warn't right; it was because I warn't square; it was because I was playing double. I was letting on to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all. I was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing and the clean thing, and go and write to that nigger's owner and tell where he was; but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie-- and He knowed it. You can't pray a lie-- I found that out.

So I was full of trouble, full as I could be; and didn't know what to do. At last I had an idea; and I says, I'll go and write the letter-- and then see if I can pray. Why, it was astonishing, the way I felt as light as a feather, right straight off, and my troubles all gone. So I got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote:

Miss Watson your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send. HUCK FINN

I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn't do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking-- thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me, all the time; in the day, and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing. But somehow I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I'd see him standing my watch on top of his'n, stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him agin in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had smallpox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he's got now; and then I happened to look around, and see that paper.

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

"All right, then, I'll go to hell"-- and tore it up.

It was awful thoughts, and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head; and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn't. And for a starter, I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:50 AM on January 4, 2011 [130 favorites]


next up, an edition of lady chatterly's lover where the word cunt is replaced with miss happy, fuck is replaced with bouncy-wouncy, and so forth
posted by pyramid termite at 9:51 AM on January 4, 2011 [9 favorites]


Who cares?

Does anyone seriously object to R-rated films being re-edited for TV?

Or with Reader's Digest Condensed Versions of popular fiction?

Or comic book retellings of classic novels?

It's not like this version is suddenly the Accepted Definitive Text of Huckleberry Finn. And if it gets people to read it who otherwise wouldn't, well, good.

I think it's a terrible idea, but fortunately I'm not required to buy a copy. I do have some misgivings about this version being used as a teaching tool, because part of teaching that book should be confronting the ugly reality of 19th-century attitudes head-on. But, yeah, Joe Beese is right: public domain means exactly that.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 9:52 AM on January 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


Just don't fuck with Blazing Saddles, ok?
posted by bondcliff at 9:54 AM on January 4, 2011 [9 favorites]


Thanks, shakespeherian. The whole point of the book is that Huck makes up his mind to protect Jim, in spite of the fact that he thinks he's doing the wrong thing. His culture has completely convinced him that Jim is property and that he, Huck, will and should go to hell if he helps Jim escape; and yet he does help Jim escape. Substituting a nicer word for "nigger" robs that moment of much of it's power. Bowlderizing the text in that way is horribly offensive.
posted by steambadger at 9:57 AM on January 4, 2011 [9 favorites]


I'm really surprised this wasn't already done. In a world where they can take the entire chapter "The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn" out of "The Wind In The Willows" such that you have to HUNT for a complete copy, I can hardly believe "N-word" lasted longer in Twain than it has in Kipling and so forth.
posted by The otter lady at 9:59 AM on January 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Just don't fuck with Blazing Saddles, ok?

Oh man, don't ever watch that on AMC.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:59 AM on January 4, 2011 [8 favorites]


I was given various "sanitized" versions of classic literature to read when I was in school -- The Miracle Worker comes to mind, particularly the speech where Annie recalls in detail the horrors she saw in the asylum as a kid -- and I was always ticked off when I later found out that I'd been spoonfed a watered-down dish. What is with this head-in-the-sand attitude? Do people seriously think if we all pretend that words and ideas like this never existed in the past, it will somehow make people less likely to say and think them now?
posted by Gator at 10:00 AM on January 4, 2011


From the publishers:

We recognized that some people would say that this was censorship of a kind, but our feeling is that there are plenty of other books out there—all of them, in fact—that faithfully replicate the text, and that this was simply an option for those who were increasingly uncomfortable, as he put it, insisting students read a text which was so incredibly hurtful.

The use of a single racial slur is hardly the only problematic thing about introducing Huck Finn to young students, although it's arguably the least subtle. I still think if you change the language, it's hard to get away from making your message seem something like "Hey kids, let's read this hilarious and important novel about what things were like when black people were slaves!" Obviously it's meant as an attack against prejudice rather than something like Birth of a Nation that was aggressively racist at the time that it was made, but a progressive white guy's novel in 1885 is going to seem pretty racist by 2011 standards no matter who wrote it. So if you are trying to avoid having really difficult conversation about race, Huck Finn is probably not a novel you are going to want to tackle even if they get rid of every instance of the word "nigger."
posted by burnmp3s at 10:01 AM on January 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


Just don't fuck with Blazing Saddles, ok?

Yeah, don't blank out the farts.
posted by Pendragon at 10:03 AM on January 4, 2011


Just don't fuck with Blazing Saddles, ok?

The sheriff is a inner-city resident!
posted by shakespeherian at 10:04 AM on January 4, 2011 [6 favorites]


Heh. I actually watched Blazing Saddles on local TV when I was a kid, although they bleeped out all the utterances of "nigger." Of course, I'd been hearing the word since birth, multiple times a day every single day at high volume, from my foul-mouthed father, so it's not like the bleeps were shielding me from anything.
posted by Gator at 10:09 AM on January 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


Of course, I'd been hearing the word since birth, multiple times a day every single day at high volume, from my foul-mouthed father, so it's not like the bleeps were shielding me from anything.

Oh, I'm with you there. I can't tell you!
posted by blucevalo at 10:11 AM on January 4, 2011


Just don't fuck with Blazing Saddles, ok?

Oh man, don't ever watch that on AMC.


I'm wondering if it's been further modified since the last time I saw it on TV, many years ago. That time they redubbed all the swear words, but kept "nigger." It was kind of surprising to hear the old lady's "fuck off, nigger" redubbed to "outa ma way, nigger." Even then, I was like, if you're going to do it at all, why is this vulgar, but that's okay?
posted by Naberius at 10:12 AM on January 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Take it out. Especially in schools. You teach this thing in a class, the class becomes all about the n-word. Not the book. The n-word is the most over-discussed, pointless, never-to-be-resolved controversy in our culture. Let it die. Kill the word in "Huckleberry Finn" and let students talk about the book. Here's the other reason the n-word needs to go. Some people are offended by it. Why hurt someone's feelings? Take it out.
posted by Faze at 10:13 AM on January 4, 2011 [6 favorites]


Faint of Butt: Congratulations, sir, you've just increased market share for my publication of Huckleberry Finn: The Unaltered Edition with Full Original Text

Alternatively, they could redub it "Huck Finn Lite", now with 50% less nigger than other leading novels.
posted by dr_dank at 10:14 AM on January 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's not like this version is suddenly the Accepted Definitive Text of Huckleberry Finn.posted by BitterOldPunk

Problem is it one day may be. I know people who have never seen the uncut version of Blazing Saddles.
I also know people who bootleg Disney's Song of The South. Disney will never release it again because of stereotypes common of the period in which the film takes place.
posted by Gungho at 10:14 AM on January 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


I have a couple problems with this.

1. The phrases "good nigger" and "good slave" are not remotely equivalent. The former suggests a noble character, whereas the latter suggests a tendency to do his job well without requiring too many whippings. It would be like recasting the Black Stallion as a gelded, farm-born Clydesdale.

2. Huck, the prototypical "free spirit," would never, ever, ever call anyone a "good slave."
posted by Sys Rq at 10:14 AM on January 4, 2011 [24 favorites]


This is good because the main job of literature is to sedate us and make us feel good about ourselves.
posted by Omon Ra at 10:15 AM on January 4, 2011 [27 favorites]


Ooh I just ordered The Slave of the Narcissus for my Kindle.
posted by Mister_A at 10:16 AM on January 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


blah blah, irony or whatever, but can we just agree, as a community, not to put the n-word on the front page?

It's a little more interesting than "blah, blah, irony," I think. Why does Mark Twain's authorial integrity count more than ericost's?

Substituting a nicer word for "nigger" robs that moment of much of it's power.

Not really. And not snarky, but can anyone succintly explain why Huckleberry Finn is considered such an incredibly awesome behemoth of literature. Sure, it's a good book. But I don't think it's that good.

I'm mostly with BitterOldPunk. I can't care too much. It's not much different than a dubbed movie on an airplane. And yeah, I could understand why black kids might not want to hear the word "nigger" used over and over again in school.

Huck Finn is probably not a novel you are going to want to tackle even if they get rid of every instance of the word "nigger."

Yes, but removing the word at least gives teachers that opportunity.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:17 AM on January 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


One problem is that using the word "Slave" is not the same. That kind of makes invisible the rather complicated world at the time, when there were quite a lot of free blacks. Jim, at the end of the book, is not a slave. He is not suddenly white for being suddenly free--though Huck, in one of the more troubling bits in the book, does say that he "knowed" Jim was "white inside."

The book is not exactly as sunny an anti-racist text as some people might like. It's full of minstrel show stereotypes and jokes. Jim is played as, if not less than human, at least less than adult--and played for laughs that the reader has to chuckle along with. Huck at the end, in a little unpleasant symbolic replay of Reconstruction, plays conspirator in the horrific "escape attempt" section, when Tom knows that Jim was free all along. There's lots of unpleasantries to start conversations. The N word is just the fetishized bit--the bit you can see without much work.
posted by LucretiusJones at 10:17 AM on January 4, 2011 [6 favorites]


This is the colorized movies debate all over again. As long as the original version is still available, who cares if an altered version exists?
posted by rocket88 at 10:17 AM on January 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


empath: but can we just agree, as a community, not to put the n-word on the front page?

I would find such an agreement considerably more disturbing than the appearance of the word in a front page post.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 10:17 AM on January 4, 2011 [5 favorites]


This is the colorized movies debate all over again. As long as the original version is still available, who cares if an altered version exists?

Many creators of black-and-white films would have made them color in the first place, if they'd had the option. Mark Twain certainly had access to the word "slave" and if he'd wanted to use it he would have.
posted by Tomorrowful at 10:19 AM on January 4, 2011 [6 favorites]


post-preview: Sys Rq raises fair points. Why not change the n-word to "black man" or even a non-offensive neologism like "blackman"?
posted by mrgrimm at 10:19 AM on January 4, 2011


Joe Beese is right: public domain means exactly that.

And steambadger's response to Joe Beese is right: that means publication of the bowdlerized version is legal. No one here is disputing that.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:20 AM on January 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


From the Coda in Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451

There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist / Unitarian, Irish / Italian / Octogenarian / Zen Buddhist, Zionist/Seventh-day Adventist, Women's Lib/Republican, Mattachine/FourSquareGospel feel it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blanc-mange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme.

http://www.angelfire.com/ga/page451/raybradbury.html
posted by Omon Ra at 10:23 AM on January 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


"It's the suppression of the word that gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness."
posted by sbutler at 10:27 AM on January 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


That time they redubbed all the swear words, but kept "nigger."

Well, now they've eliminated all instances of "nigger;" blanked out "cocaine" in "I Get A Kick Out of You;" and for some reason, overdubbed "Camptown Races" with "Clang, Clang, Clang Went the Trolly."
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 10:29 AM on January 4, 2011


I really don't think that the best way to deal with contemporary problems of racism is to edit out literary evidence of racism in America's cultural history.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 10:30 AM on January 4, 2011 [5 favorites]


The Bowdler Shakespeare. In Six Volumes; In which Nothing Is Added to the Original Text; but those Words and Expressions Are Omitted which Cannot with Propriety Be Read Aloud in a Family. (p.s. SFW. Very very SFW)
posted by jfuller at 10:31 AM on January 4, 2011 [5 favorites]


Substituting a nicer word for "nigger" robs that moment of much of it's power.

Not really.

Yes, really.

And not snarky, but can anyone succintly explain why Huckleberry Finn is considered such an incredibly awesome behemoth of literature. Sure, it's a good book. But I don't think it's that good.

I'm not really interested in defending the book as an "awesome behemoth of literature," although I treasure it personally. It's got a lot of flaws (particularly the ending, as LucretiusJones pointed out above); but it's a remarkable look at the conflict between society and individual freedom. And it is, in places, the funniest book I've ever read.

Really, if the book as written is too offensive to teach in high school lit classes, then just don't teach it. Let kids discover it for themselves, or in college.
posted by steambadger at 10:31 AM on January 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


And not snarky, but can anyone succintly explain why Huckleberry Finn is considered such an incredibly awesome behemoth of literature.

Because it had no antecedent. People didn't write books like that before Mark Twain.
posted by Mister_A at 10:32 AM on January 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


And not snarky, but can anyone succintly explain why Huckleberry Finn is considered such an incredibly awesome behemoth of literature. Sure, it's a good book. But I don't think it's that good.

"After Twain's compelling image of black and white fraternity the Negro generally disappears from fiction as a rounded human being. And if already in Twain's time a novel which was optimistic concerning a democracy which would include all men could not escape from being banned from public libraries, by our day his great drama of interracial fraternity had become, for most Americans at least, an amusing boy's story and nothing more." -- Ralph Ellison, 1953
posted by blucevalo at 10:33 AM on January 4, 2011 [9 favorites]


This almost begs for a reversal of those 'moralist goes to library and markers over curse words in books' stories. Except then the internet would twist the campaign and it'd end up with a whole bunch of Anon jagoffs finding copies of the censored book and putting a 'POOL'S CLOSED' sticker on the front or something.
posted by FatherDagon at 10:34 AM on January 4, 2011


Everyone at the back of the class will stop sslaveing at that word now.
posted by davemee at 10:38 AM on January 4, 2011 [6 favorites]


They took all the sex jokes out of my 10th-grade english textbook version of Romeo and Juliet.

Part of me is outraged. Another part knows, pragmatically, that you simply can't keep 20 tenth graders under control and have a civilized discussion of literature if that literature includes dirty jokes.

Besides, they're not burning every copy of the original Huck Finn and burying alive anyone who remembers it. If you want to read a great book, Huck Finn is there to be had. This version is a fair approximation. I have a hard time getting upset that high school students are reading 90% of Huck Finn.
posted by Pickman's Next Top Model at 10:38 AM on January 4, 2011


I remember a library user in the early 90s that loved books on tape and when he asked for a title suggestion I suggested Huckleberry Finn because it is a great book to hear and he refused because of the use of the word nigger. Nothing I said could change his mind.
posted by zzazazz at 10:38 AM on January 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Books on tape, now THERE is something to get upset about. If you're blind, you can have books on tape; otherwise no.
posted by Mister_A at 10:41 AM on January 4, 2011


They took all the sex jokes out of my 10th-grade english textbook version of Romeo and Juliet.

This got me thinking. All of them, or just the ones a 10th-grader (even a smart one) would have caught?
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 10:42 AM on January 4, 2011 [5 favorites]


Here's the other reason the n-word needs to go. Some people are offended by it. Why hurt someone's feelings? Take it out.

So, should we should edit about 90% of Flannery O’Connor’s works as well? Should the MPAA remove the word from films? Should major labels edit it from music? Or should we simply enlist the government to reach into the private sector and do all the above for us?

Not being snarky here, but asking a legitimate question as the tactic you suggest may conceivably put us on a dangerous path.
posted by tiger yang at 10:43 AM on January 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Awful idea. Let's not confront and discuss issues but bury them. Let's not bother to discuss a work of literature as literature but modify lest it should offend those who are unwilling to step out of their own sensibilities and attempt to understand the work.

What would they do with the Wire I wonder, if it was in the public domain? A production of impressionists would keep busy redialoguing it.
posted by juiceCake at 10:44 AM on January 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Personally I would probably read this edition over other editions. I do think teachers who use this edition should tell their students what was edited and why.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 10:46 AM on January 4, 2011


(as well as the "in" word, "Injun")

So um, what are they replacing Injun with?
posted by elsietheeel at 10:47 AM on January 4, 2011


This got me thinking. All of them, or just the ones a 10th-grader (even a smart one) would have caught?

Seriously. Did they change the title of Much Ado About Nothing, too?
posted by shakespeherian at 10:48 AM on January 4, 2011 [5 favorites]


Yeah good question, elsietheeel. I wondered the same thing.
posted by Mister_A at 10:48 AM on January 4, 2011


I grew up in Iowa (and am white), so reading Huck Finn in school was the first time I heard or read or had a substantive conversation about the word "nigger." It was the source of the first real conversation about racism as a form of ignorance and that even well-meaning people can say hateful things. Hell, it was probably the first time I was asked and pushed to disagree with something I read in a book.

All very good lessons.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 10:50 AM on January 4, 2011 [14 favorites]


This got me thinking. All of them, or just the ones a 10th-grader (even a smart one) would have caught?

Seriously. Did they change the title of Much Ado About Nothing, too?


The one I remember them removing was the "hand of the dial is now about the prick of noon" line. I seem to remember them chopping about half of Mercutio's lines, but without specific memories or references.

And Much Ado About Nothing just wasn't in the english textbook - problem solved.
posted by Pickman's Next Top Model at 10:52 AM on January 4, 2011


I'm pretty sure the power, violence, and viciousness predated the suppression.

Not that I'm defending this nonsense. Anybody trying to do this has no business teaching literature to anybody. Talk about missing the point.
posted by callmejay at 10:53 AM on January 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Here's the other reason the n-word needs to go. Some people are offended by it. Why hurt someone's feelings? Take it out.

Why? Why should life be sanitized for your convenience? I've always failed to see why this is reasonable. So the goal is to reach a level where nobody is offended by anything ever? That seems like an impossible ideal thats a surefire way to reach a Muhammed cartoon banning level situation.

A lot of new ideas and new ways of thinking come from discussion of the things that bug us. Censoring language is just another tool of those who prefer an uncritical populace. It kind of reminds me of the Newspeak language in 1984, created precisely to remove all ambiguity and dissent from tought.
posted by Omon Ra at 10:54 AM on January 4, 2011 [7 favorites]


What a weird quandary. If schools start having access to both books...I just see people trying to defend the original and sounding like people in the South when they try to defend the Confederate flag.

"I want my kids to read the one with the racial slurs!"
posted by cjorgensen at 10:55 AM on January 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


thought, I meant to write thought... damn my bilingual brain...
posted by Omon Ra at 10:55 AM on January 4, 2011


Greedo shot first.
posted by Xoebe at 11:03 AM on January 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


"'There are some kids out there who've never heard the word as anything other than a slur"

Who? White kids who don't have access to rap music??
posted by bboyberlin at 11:03 AM on January 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have a hard time getting upset that high school students are reading 90% of Huck Finn.

I don't. If you really can't teach the book without defacing it, then teach something else.
posted by steambadger at 11:04 AM on January 4, 2011 [7 favorites]


I refused to read Huckleberry Finn in school (I also stopped standing and reciting the pledge in 4th grade so this kind of thing wasn't very surprising coming from me). As the only black kid in class (yay busing!), I found the liberal use of the "n" word (aparently it's used over 200 times?) to be a bit much. I did not want to be in a class surrounded by white people using that word; I did not want to hear my white teacher use that word. I did not (and do not) feel they had the right to do so.

There is a visceral feeling of despair and anger that accompanies that word for me (the same was true when I was younger, though the feelings were more confusing), and though the argument that this book should be taught in order to start a dialogue about slavery and racism, is a common one, that argument does not resonate for me. The onus is not on me to endure that despair and that anger in order to aid American white people in their very long/tedious journey toward racial tolerance in the aftermath of slavery.

All of that being said, I neither agree nor disagree with this whitewashing (I hope you see what I did there). I assume that some teachers will use this new version while others will use the original edition. I think it is much more important to start giving children who are disturbed by this word the right to opt out of reading the original version.
posted by eunoia at 11:04 AM on January 4, 2011 [21 favorites]


Whoa - slow down, you guys. Nobody is censoring anything. Nobody is suppressing anything. Huck Finn is just fine. He's right there in the library. Someone is publishing an edition with words changed.

Also, how many of the enraged posters here read the article? The edition is being supervised by Twain scholar Alan Gribben (BA Univ. Kansas, MA Univ. Oregon, PhD Univ. California Berkeley, co-founder, Mark Twain Circle of America, Fellow, Center for Mark Twain Studies 1989-1996). As a guess, he's probably fairly aware of what's at stake in publishing an expurgated edition.
posted by Pickman's Next Top Model at 11:05 AM on January 4, 2011


I just recently led a book discussion group on Huckleberry Finn (unabridged, unexpurgated) with mentally ill adult men. I wasn't sure how it would be received. Out of four guys who stayed with the group the whole 16 weeks, one seemed to generally get it but wasn't enthusiastic about it, two didn't finish the book and didn't enjoy it, and one listened to it on CD (unabridged) but wasn't getting much out of it. This last fellow was interesting to me because he heard every instance of the N word, and when asked how he was liking the book he would say every week "they use the N word too much, it offends me". But he is also cognitively challenged and proved to be unable to follow much about the book, right down to not recognizing the names of characters or major plot points when I'd mention them in the discussion.

You could make the argument that some kids are going to see "nigger" and not think beyond it. But you could then make the argument that someone who does that, doesn't have much hope of understanding the book at all, period. And of course you could then make the argument that we have to give students the opportunity to understand the full, unadulterated book, and not talk down to them by "sanitizing for your protection". But every teacher knows that you gear what you teach to what your students are realistically capable of learning; just as you don't give Of Mice and Men to first-graders (even really good readers for their age), you might not be able to give an unexpurgated Huck Finn to some teenagers.

I dunno, I'm a librarian; I just tend to throw the whole thing at the guys and help them any way I can to catch it.

Oddly, last month I very nearly bought this edition of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer for the guys for the new book group series. (It was cheap.) It wasn't until I checked Amazon that I saw the School Library Journal review that notes that this is pretty much what is being complained about in this post: a sanitized edition. So please do note that this is not a new concept, folks. (Betterworldbooks.com was lovely about helping me cancel that part of my order, btw--I recommend them!)
posted by gillyflower at 11:05 AM on January 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think it depends on the age range, really.

If I were reading a story to my son, I would drop the n-word. (In fact I have, reading Kipling's Just So Stories, reading the line in How the Leopard Got His Spots as "Plain black is best for me" rather than the original "Plain black is best for a nigger".) But my son is a year and a half old. He's not big enough to understand the power of words, or that some words that used to be OK have changed as time progresses and cultural values have changed.

Kids in elementary school may not be ready for it either. Kids in high school? If they watch movies or listen to music they've probably heard that word hundreds of times by then. Perhaps reading Huck Finn to remind them of what the word used to embody would be helpful.
posted by caution live frogs at 11:09 AM on January 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is egregious because one of the main reasons the the book is considered a 'literary behemoth' is because Twain dared to write in a distinctly American vernacular - a vernacular associated with a very particular time, class, and place. It can be argued that previous American luminaries were more heavily influenced by (and even imitating) English literature. The book was denounced by several critics as vulgar and even banned in places when it first appeared. Is it still okay to remove the word when one of the primary things the author was attempting to do - one of the main reasons the work was considered groundbreaking - was to capture the way people actually spoke?
posted by zylocomotion at 11:22 AM on January 4, 2011 [6 favorites]


I love this new text, and propose that the n-word be replaced by "slave" in the lyrics of all hip-hop and rap songs.

For example:

"Slavez Bleed" by Notorious B.I.G.:

Slavez bleed just like us
Picture me bein scared
of a slave that breathe the same air as me...


or

"Jigga My Slave" featuring Jay-Z:

What's my motherfuckin' name?
Jigga!
And who I'm rollin' with, huh?
My slaves!
Uh-huh, huh-uh-huh slaves better get it right...

posted by jeremy b at 11:27 AM on January 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


Also, how many of the enraged posters here read the article? The edition is being supervised by Twain scholar Alan Gribben (BA Univ. Kansas, MA Univ. Oregon, PhD Univ. California Berkeley, co-founder, Mark Twain Circle of America, Fellow, Center for Mark Twain Studies 1989-1996).

Oh, well in that case, I guess we'd better shut up and just let the expert do his job.

What I want to know it why it takes a Ph.D. to supervise what is essentially a "find and replace" job that I could do in seconds, plus a couple of hours to make sure that the substitutions make sense in context.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 11:30 AM on January 4, 2011 [7 favorites]


The onus is not on me to endure that despair and that anger in order to aid American white people in their very long/tedious journey toward racial tolerance in the aftermath of slavery.

Quoted for -- what's the word -- ah yes: Truth.

I'm thinking it becomes a different discussion depending on who the teacher is and who's in the class and so on. Everyone's experience is different but a class full of white kids is a class whose collective members don't have the relationship to the word that a class where everyone isn't white would. Which is to say, yeah I think there's good that comes from having to confront this but doing it at the expense of complacency and doing it at the expense of comfort are two wildly different things.

I suppose my super-important Opinions here are informed by the fact that I am now (shamefully I admit this) only reading Huck Finn for the first time (I was a very obstinate high-schooler and basically having a book assigned to me meant I didn't want to read it), and I don't know what the effect would have been at the time but years of history and accumulated cache of language add up to this: I'm struck by the dichotomy between the off-hand manner in which the word is used and the way that each and every time it comes up it's like a huge shard of broken glass or similar, sticking out of the page. Is that what Twain intended? I don't know.

All of which is to say that yeah I agree with everythin' you said up there, and that while we certainly should consider the work in the context of its time, that necessarily includes considering it in the context of ours as well.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 11:36 AM on January 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


This made me think of this Family Guy moment, actually.... As it turns out, it's a nice bit of satire, but I half think a sanitized version might be better if it explicitly used "n-word" instead of, say, "slave." At least then the context would be clear. (I have mixed feelings about sanitized versions as well; I'm pretty sure Clemens himself would not be happy about this...)
posted by JMOZ at 11:38 AM on January 4, 2011


Pater - I wasn't suggesting "hush, dear, the men are talking," but rather that the arguments about why the word is essential to the spirit of Huckleberry Finn aren't ones that the project leader is unfamiliar with.

Also, I don't think it takes a PhD to copy edit, but it sure helps to have one when you're trying to get a book contract. :/
posted by Pickman's Next Top Model at 11:38 AM on January 4, 2011


Ooh I just ordered The Slave of the Narcissus for my Kindle.

Reality is much weirder than that.
posted by dng at 11:39 AM on January 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


though the argument that this book should be taught in order to start a dialogue about slavery and racism, is a common one, that argument does not resonate for me.

I think Huck's language use starts a conversation about more than slavery and racism. It shows us how language and opinions circulate, how "even well-meaning people can say hateful things," and how Huck's shallow opinions get replaced by what salishea calls "nuanced and thoughtful interests." It's interesting that the most favorited comment of last year on Metafilter is kind of a Huck Finn story and just as problematic.
posted by Jagz-Mario at 11:40 AM on January 4, 2011


Katt Williams on censorship.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:42 AM on January 4, 2011


Ah, the evolution of language...


1884: "Nigger" is a common derogatory term used by white people to describe black people that is generally accepted in casual conversation. Black people do not use the word.

1994: "Nigger" becomes unacceptable to say. There is such a racially charged trial going on nationally that white people get confused as to the difference between using a word in context and using it as an insult. Sensing the irony, black people start to use it.

1994: "Welfare queen" is invented around this time.

2011: "Nigger" strikes at the heart of white people who are so terrified of race that they cannot discuss it. It becomes so powerful no white person is allowed to say it in any context. Black people use the word as a term of endearment.

2011: "Welfare queen" is a common derogatory term used by white people to describe black people that is generally accepted in casual conversation. Black people do not use the term.

2138: "Nigger" is word that results in automatic jail time.

2138: "Welfare queen" becomes so powerful that no white person is allowed to say it in any context. Black people use it as a term of endearment.

2138: "Crumbum" is a common derogatory term used by white people to describe black people that is generally accepted in casual conversation. Black people do not use the term.
posted by flarbuse at 11:42 AM on January 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Confound you, reality! You are always weirder than my most feverish dreams!
posted by Mister_A at 11:43 AM on January 4, 2011


Take it out. Especially in schools. You teach this thing in a class, the class becomes all about the n-word. Not the book.

Children need to be taught history, and this book (and all of the "bad" words within) is a part of that history and needs to be taught AS IS! It doesn't take longer than 5 minutes to discuss how times change and how cultures grow and evolve (or devolve for that matter.) The racial thing is such a part of that book anyway; it seems foolish to try and clean it up.
posted by ReeMonster at 11:45 AM on January 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


1994: "Nigger" becomes unacceptable to say...."Welfare queen" is invented around this time.

Both of those things occurred a heck of a lot earlier in the timeline than 1994.
posted by Gator at 11:56 AM on January 4, 2011 [5 favorites]


It's been a long while since I last read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. One of the things I'm wondering about with this find/replace project is if all the people referred to as niggers were slaves. In the context of the time, there were black people who were not slaves, but they were (probably, almost certainly) still called niggers. The terms are not interchangeable.
posted by rtha at 11:57 AM on January 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


True, rtha -- but there weren't a whole lot of free blacks in Missouri at the time, and I don't remember any in the book.
posted by steambadger at 12:03 PM on January 4, 2011


Yeah, I'm just having faint memories of reading the book in school, and how it was a jumping-off point for studying the Civil War, slavery, the abolitionist movement, etc.
posted by rtha at 12:05 PM on January 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Eunoia's argument is really the only valid argument for changing the book. Thank you, Eunoia, for making it.

Huck Finn is an amazing book. One of my favorites since I first read it at 10 years old. It is not without its faults. The biggest, for me, being that it becomes clear about 60% of the way through the book that Twain has no idea how to end the story. And deep down in my soul it feels really wrong to me to try to edit a book that is prefaced with:

"In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary "Pike County" dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech."


Twain was one of the greatest wordsmiths of all time, and it just feels really wrong to edit his work in this way.

However, you know what is worse? Someone having to have a highschool experience like Eunoia's.

The only solution I see is not to teach the book to highschool students. And I'm really okay with that. I don't see it as essential to the dialog on racism in this country at this time, nor to the teaching of the history of slavery in this country. But Twain is an indispensable part of this country's literary heritage. So let's teach it in college literature classes and skip this editing nonsense.
posted by jeffamaphone at 12:06 PM on January 4, 2011 [6 favorites]


so this NEW SOUTH publisher is re-writing anything having to do with the OLD SOUTH to show how "new south" they are. am assuming the publishers believe they have to erase anything having to do with slavery and racism from one of the most important portraits of slavery and racism in american culture and literature to make southern states feel good --and very NEW SOUTH-- about themselves.

well, fuck the NEW SOUTH.
posted by liza at 12:10 PM on January 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Pickman's Next Top Model: Part of me is outraged. Another part knows, pragmatically, that you simply can't keep 20 tenth graders under control and have a civilized discussion of literature if that literature includes dirty jokes.

Wow, when I taught Romeo and Juliet to freshmen, the dirty jokes were the only way I could get them engaged and interested. (That and making a boy read all of Juliet's parts. You know, to keep it real.) After having some grand classroom-wide laugh fests, we were able to actually discuss the literature. Most of the other teachers in my school allowed the students to read those parts, uncommented-upon, in a monotonous drone. Entire classrooms full of unenlightened students left school thinking Shakespeare was highbrow and tedious. My students left school biting their thumbs at each other.

I wouldn't teach from this Bowdlerized version, I wouldn't buy it, I would advise anyone against it, but if someone still wants it, go for it.
posted by Seamus at 12:15 PM on January 4, 2011 [8 favorites]


[On a bowdlerized Romeo and Juliet]

Another part knows, pragmatically, that you simply can't keep 20 tenth graders under control and have a civilized discussion of literature if that literature includes dirty jokes.

Total, total, total baloney. Just about every time we read Shakespeare in high school, the teacher would point out how Shakespeare often hid dirty jokes and other double entendres in the texts. No one reacted with anything more than polite, appropriate laughter.
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:19 PM on January 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


The only solution I see is not to teach the book to highschool students.

I think that probably is the only solution, if the book really can't be taught without alienating half the class and sending the other half into giggle-fits. I remain convinced that a good teacher could handle this -- but I think not teaching the book (while making sure it's available in the library, and recommending it to interested students) is far preferable to teaching a bastardized version.
posted by steambadger at 12:25 PM on January 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Eunoia's argument is really the only valid argument for changing the book.

eunoia's argument only applies to eunoia, though, and people who feel the way she does. I wouldn't dream of suggesting that she's wrong for feeling that way, but I became uncomfortable at the suggestion that others don't "have the right" to use that word or teach that word or read that word:

I did not want to be in a class surrounded by white people using that word; I did not want to hear my white teacher use that word. I did not (and do not) feel they had the right to do so. [emphasis mine]

I think people certainly have a right to insulate and shield themselves from speech that causes them such visceral feelings of despair and anger, but I get uncomfortable when it's extended to shielding everybody else (including people who don't feel that way) from those things by altering already-existing art and literature.

I dunno, man. Isn't more speech always better than less?
posted by Gator at 12:25 PM on January 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


@The otter lady - Who takes "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn" out of Wind in the Willows, and why?
posted by jackbrown at 12:27 PM on January 4, 2011


Who takes "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn" out of Wind in the Willows, and why?

Syd Barrett?
posted by steambadger at 12:29 PM on January 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


flarbuse: ""Nigger" is word that results in automatic jail time."

Yeah, poor poor strawmen all sent down the river for using a word.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 12:40 PM on January 4, 2011


I dunno, man. Isn't more speech always better than less?

Are more editions better than fewer?
posted by Pickman's Next Top Model at 12:47 PM on January 4, 2011


Is it Christian fundamentalists objecting to the appearance of Pan or something?
posted by jackbrown at 12:47 PM on January 4, 2011


Is it Christian fundamentalists objecting to the appearance of Pan or something?

If they start teaching The Great God Pan in high school English classes, then our future looks bright.
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:50 PM on January 4, 2011


"'There are some kids out there who've never heard the word as anything other than a slur"

Who? White kids who don't have access to rap music??

...

I love this new text, and propose that the n-word be replaced by "slave" in the lyrics of all hip-hop and rap songs.


Do you honestly think "nigga" and "nigger" are the same word?

How many rap songs use the word "nigger" as opposed to "nigga"? Let's hear them.

With some very notable exceptions the vast majority of the songs that use the word "nigger" are from white dudes.
posted by mrgrimm at 12:52 PM on January 4, 2011


I'm a white former teacher who once had to teach Huck Finn to a class full of mostly African American sophormores. We prefaced the book with a lot of student-led discussion of the n-word.

I think the n-word debate with Huck Finn hides the fact that what's really omg offensive is the depiction of Jim -- he has moments of nobility, but these are constantly clouded (for me) by offensive buffoonery.

There are plenty of other terrrific books for high school kids.
posted by HeroZero at 12:53 PM on January 4, 2011 [5 favorites]


I think the n-word debate with Huck Finn hides the fact that what's really omg offensive is the depiction of Jim -- he has moments of nobility, but these are constantly clouded (for me) by offensive buffoonery.

This. There are other great Mark Twain books and there are other great, and dare I say even better and more appropriate to our time, books dealing with racism, slavery, humanity, etc.

As long as Huck Finn is still in the library, I don't see the problem with switching out that book and moving on to something else.

The bowdlerized version seems to me like a very goofy compromise on a number of deeper issues.
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:57 PM on January 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Part of me is outraged. Another part knows, pragmatically, that you simply can't keep 20 tenth graders under control and have a civilized discussion of literature if that literature includes dirty jokes.

I'm echoing other folks sentiments here, but I've taught "Romeo and Juliet" and other classic texts with dirty jokes to high school students and have never had an issue keeping the students under control. Indeed, this is a classroom management (and, perhaps, maturity) issue that a decent teacher would be able to handle no problem.

(Side note: I can't believe I'm referencing that classic of western cinema Porky's 2, but there's actually a decent scene in that movie where a Christian group is trying to censor Shakespeare's plays at the local high school. The leader of the Christian group reads a "filthy" section of Shakespeare and, in defense, the principal of the school reads back an equally "filthy" section of the Bible.)

Regarding Huck Finn, if a teacher or school district has chosen to teach that in class, it should be assumed that there is an expectation of mature response on the parts of the students. Its been my experience that students will rise to you expectations no matter how high you set them - or sink to them no matter how low you set them.

The "n word" is not the reason to teach Huck Finn. That is, however, how people spoke at the time and teaching a bowdlerized version of the book is sort of teaching a lie. Anyhow, if a teacher is so incompetent that they can't prevent the entire discussion of the book to be about the use of a single word in the book, well, that's more a reflection on their poor teaching ability than on the value of teaching the book.

That all said, the choice to teach Huck Finn or not should ultimately be based on what is being taught and how it can best be taught. For example, if the focus is on the development of the American novel, Huck Finn is an excellent example of 19th century American literature (but not the only one). If the focus is on how race has been addressed in literature, Huck Finn is also an excellent example of this - and an essential read along with (for example) Uncle Tom's Cabin, To Kill A Mockingbird and Invisible Man (among many others).

Depending on the curriculum, it might be more valuable to provide a reading list for students of books that are considered to be excellent examples of what the teacher is focusing on during that year, require them to read a certain number of books from that list, and then have the students present projects that explain to the rest of the class why that book is considered a classic and how it stands as an example of great 19th century literature, or exploration of race relations in literature, or what have you. This both allows the issues to be tackled in an academic setting and gives students the option to "opt out" of reading specific books (while still being exposed to the themes, style and historical importance of all the books on the reading list via the presentations of other students).
posted by Joey Michaels at 12:59 PM on January 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


I think the n-word debate with Huck Finn hides the fact that what's really omg offensive is the depiction of Jim -- he has moments of nobility, but these are constantly clouded (for me) by offensive buffoonery.

I don't entirely disagree with you about Jim; there's definitely a tinge of minstrelsy about him, but I doubt it's an egregiously unrealistic portrayal of an uneducated slave in the backwaters of the American south a hundred and fifty years ago. Jim comes off better than most of the white characters; and he has more than a few moments of nobility. His nobility is essential to the book.

You're right that the word in question isn't the most offensive thing in the book -- not by a long shot. HF is chock full of offensive statements and behavior from almost every white character, including Huck. Consider this:
"It warn't the grounding -- that didn't keep us back but a little. We blowed out a cylinder-head."
"Good gracious! Anybody hurt?"
"No'm. Killed a nigger."
Does that become less offensive if the word "nigger" is changed to "slave"?

Of course, Twain intends for things like this to be offensive.
posted by steambadger at 1:19 PM on January 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


As a guess, he's probably fairly aware of what's at stake in publishing an expurgated edition.

As an academic, he will also be aware just what a bonanza a best selling textbook can be. I wouldn't mind a cut of this thing myself.

Though I would hate myself all the way to the bank.
posted by IndigoJones at 1:33 PM on January 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Completely agree with eunoia.

Are they seriously arguing that it's hurtful to make students read a book containing the word "nigger" as though the word were being spoken at them?

For some people it is very hurtful. I'm not saying simply replacing the word is the right thing to do. But for those who don't even comprehend the problem or think it's not a big deal what books like this do to children, here is a great discussion on this topic (primarily talking about To Kill A Mockingbird, but Finn is mentioned and it definitely applies there).

On what it's like to be a black kid in a white class reading Huck Finn: Huck Finn, freshman year. Two of the worst weeks of my life. Honors English and I was the only Black person, the only person of color, in a class of twelve students. The teacher made me read the passages with the word nigger because if the other kids read it, why 'that'd be racist'!...For those two weeks, and many years afterward, I felt like a "nigger".

on teaching Huck Finn

On the racism in the book (which won't be gone just because the word is erased)
posted by Danila at 1:33 PM on January 4, 2011 [11 favorites]


Total, total, total baloney. Just about every time we read Shakespeare in high school, the teacher would point out how Shakespeare often hid dirty jokes and other double entendres in the texts. No one reacted with anything more than polite, appropriate laughter.

Yeah, I was about to say, no matter how clever the dirty jokes are, they can always be bested by the bored apathy of high-school students.
posted by Greg Nog at 1:34 PM on January 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


I remain convinced that a good teacher could handle this...

I agree. But that leads us to a completely different discussion on how to improve teaching quality. For purposes of this discussion, I'm assuming the current state of education as it is.
posted by jeffamaphone at 1:42 PM on January 4, 2011


Huck Finn: Born to Trouble is an interesting article about how one school district dealt with this very question.
posted by steambadger at 1:46 PM on January 4, 2011 [5 favorites]


Thanks for posting that link, Danila. The comments from other black students who attended predominately white schools are very interesting. It's kind of rare to find others who had that experience.
posted by eunoia at 1:54 PM on January 4, 2011


True, rtha -- but there weren't a whole lot of free blacks in Missouri at the time, and I don't remember any in the book.


There's at least one, and Pap's appalling discourse about him is the sort of a thing that makes Huckleberry Finn the powerful book it is.
posted by dirtdirt at 1:58 PM on January 4, 2011


Oh, yeah -- I had forgotten about Pap's "p’fessor". I wonder how the expurgated version will handle that?
posted by steambadger at 2:01 PM on January 4, 2011


The comments from other black students who attended predominately white schools are very interesting. It's kind of rare to find others who had that experience.

I attended a predominantly white school due to busing. Also, if you're black and classified as gifted, odds are you will be in quite a few predominantly white classes throughout your academic career.

I have to say that if I ever have children I would think very long and very hard about sending them to a predominantly white school. Man just having more non-white teachers would have been a great step. I really do not think overall it was a positive experience for me or for my sibling who also attended. It was also the first place I remember being called a "nigger". It is just very weird when you're still having that hurled at you and then you have to read a book where it's "good nigger this and that".

For too many of us this is not ancient history.
posted by Danila at 2:05 PM on January 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


steambadger - thanks for that link. That's a perfect example of how intelligent, respectful dialogue between educators, teachers, parents and the community can result in big improvement in education.
posted by Joey Michaels at 2:12 PM on January 4, 2011


I dunno, the discussion made me feel ill, like being in a room with too many earnest, censoring types only can. Jesus.
posted by raysmj at 2:22 PM on January 4, 2011


Oh sorry, wrong link. The one with the students talking about how their mom confronted the school board over the book and whatnot ... whoa. Sickening.
posted by raysmj at 2:25 PM on January 4, 2011


This is the colorized movies debate all over again...

Is anyone else offended by the use of the word 'colorized'?
posted by rough at 2:38 PM on January 4, 2011


Slave is a more respectful term than nigger? What. The. Fuck.
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:44 PM on January 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


Sadly, there are still people who think if you kill the word you kill the idea. It's the idea that's offensive, not the word.

Even if you don't agree with that, there are two reasons this is misguided:

1. Twain intended the word to be offensive.

2. "Slave" does not equal "nigger". Jim was a slave because he was a nigger. Kind of a major point.

(note: This doesn't mean I generally approve of using offensive words if it's not necessary. There is a strict "no n-word" policy in my house and among my friends. But, again, that represents a burnin' hate for the idea, not the word.)
posted by Benny Andajetz at 2:54 PM on January 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Modern editions of the Australian classic The Magic Pudding eliminate the Judge calling the Usher an 'unmitigated Jew' before assaulting him with a port bottle.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 2:57 PM on January 4, 2011


My sixth grade class read it in 1968. Our teacher made a disclaimer about the n-word at the outset and the black kids present agreed to give it a shot. We were told to keep track of every dead body mentioned in the text and that that toll would be considerable. So the book was hyped as something offensive and gory, which certainly got our attention and motivated us to actually read it.
posted by bonefish at 3:05 PM on January 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Why not use "negro" instead?
posted by mrgrimm at 3:53 PM on January 4, 2011


Why not use "negro" instead?

1. "Negro" is also considered offensive today, although much less so.

2. It doesn't convey the casual dreadfulness of the speakers' racist attitudes. It makes them seem more civilized than they are.

3. It isn't authentic to the dialects Twain is trying to reproduce.
posted by steambadger at 4:10 PM on January 4, 2011


Two of the worst weeks of my life. Honors English and I was the only Black person, the only person of color, in a class of twelve students. The teacher made me read the passages with the word nigger because if the other kids read it, why 'that'd be racist'!

Crumbum, please.
posted by shii at 4:22 PM on January 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think if they're going to change it, they should just change it to "n-----" -- that way, you know what the word is, you know it's not okay, and most importantly, you know that it has been delibrately censored.
posted by Sys Rq at 4:22 PM on January 4, 2011 [8 favorites]


These revisionist swine will stop at nothing!
posted by flabdablet at 4:30 PM on January 4, 2011


I keep waiting to see someone talking about a point I've read, though I don't remember where. (Surely someone here knows more about this than me?) I read that part of Huck Finn's use of language was exaggerated for effect. That is, even in Twain's time it was not *precisely* widely accepted that the language he used was polite. He was going out of his way to use language in an excessive manner, to make the point that it shouldn't be acceptable at all.

It wasn't Twain using a word that was considered acceptable. It was Twain using a word that was considered marginal, in a way that *some* felt was quite acceptable--but using it over and over, and in contrast, and jarringly, and trying to make it stand out to emphasize that not just the words, but the very concepts they embodied were outrageous.

Which means that slicing the original language out of the book means that what's left is much, much less than 90%.
posted by galadriel at 4:31 PM on January 4, 2011


At least one tragedy of Eunoia's argument, is that, for having refused Twain on the strength of a single word, she may never fully appreciate Ellison's Invisible Man. From a teaching guide for Invisible Man:
"13. Young Mr. Emerson sees himself as Huck Finn and the narrator as Jim. What is the social significance of such a fantasy? What is the psychological significance?"
At its best, literature builds on itself; new work alludes to old, picks dried sinew off old bones, seasons it, and serves it up, reconsidered, and sometimes, even as fresh.
posted by paulsc at 4:40 PM on January 4, 2011


I am white. When I read the book in high school (class of '68), I winced every time the word was used. My grandfather used the word back then, without venom but obviously pejoratively, to refer to blacks. I winced then, as well. I also had a cousin who, at that time, used the word, with venom, and I told him to keep it to himself, repeatedly. After a while, I just stopped being around him.

I can't begin to place myself in the shoes of someone for whom the word is a painful reminder of all the evil that has been perpetrated against her own race. I know it is used casually by some African Americans as a term of address, and I wince at that use as well. I'm not sure if that context evinces the same pain as when a white writer or high school student or teacher uses it. But it does seem to me there is a qualitative difference between it being used by the writer or by a teach and students as a part of a literary whole, especially when the story involves the very issues the word dredges up. I understand the context may not make a difference to a black person, and fully agree that anyone of any race who is offended by the use in that context should be allowed to excuse themselves from the reading and the discussions.
posted by Mental Wimp at 5:15 PM on January 4, 2011


Part of me is outraged. Another part knows, pragmatically, that you simply can't keep 20 tenth graders under control and have a civilized discussion of literature if that literature includes dirty jokes.

What?

I read Romeo and Juliet for the first time in 8th grade, unexpurgated, and again in 9th grade (different school). I don't recall any issues with keeping the class under control in either instance, even though the "dirty" jokes were included.
posted by krinklyfig at 5:15 PM on January 4, 2011


Take it out. Especially in schools. You teach this thing in a class, the class becomes all about the n-word. Not the book

That wasn't true in my school when we read the book. In fact it became the most popular book in the class for many years running- not for the language.

I think you are far too cynical. This book was instrumental in my own development, and I'm sure many other people could say the same.
posted by krinklyfig at 5:21 PM on January 4, 2011


It would seem a few of us have forgotten some of the better pieces of our high school education.

Also, here at exactly 5:00.

What we choose to forget is as important as what we choose to remember.
posted by digitalprimate at 5:33 PM on January 4, 2011


Twain was one of the greatest wordsmiths of all time, and it just feels really wrong to edit his work in this way.

However, you know what is worse? Someone having to have a highschool experience like Eunoia's.


No, you know what's worse? A high school which struggles to teach any literature at all.

I mean, I do understand that it can be hurtful, but there has to be a way to discuss subjects which might potentially be hurtful to a few people, when the intent is not harm but rather the opposite. Rejecting a work of literature on the basis of a word being hurtful is missing the whole idea of reading literature for education. My mom taught the book for over 30 years in a high school lit class (approx 120 students a year). A few students over her time objected and refused to read the book, but only a scant few, for the reasons Eunoia mentioned. I empathize with someone who feels such alienation. But it's certainly not intended, and it causes more harm to remove great works of literature from curriculums due to discomfort than it does to seek to satiate people who feel discomfort. We can similarly remove all vulgar references to sexism from literature, and it might be helpful to people who have been subject to it and feel hurt by mention of it, but it doesn't help the rest of us who seek to understand our history completely, not sanitized.
posted by krinklyfig at 5:37 PM on January 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


Slave is a more respectful term than nigger? What. The. Fuck.

Not really WTF. "Slave" isn't derogatory. It's neutral. It's a functional description.
posted by jeremy b at 5:39 PM on January 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


But it's certainly not intended, and it causes more harm to remove great works of literature from curriculums due to discomfort than it does to seek to satiate people who feel discomfort.

That's supposed to be, it causes more harm to remove great works of literature from curriculums due to discomfort than it does to offend a few people and teach the complete text.
posted by krinklyfig at 5:39 PM on January 4, 2011


I refused to read Huckleberry Finn in school (I also stopped standing and reciting the pledge in 4th grade so this kind of thing wasn't very surprising coming from me). As the only black kid in class (yay busing!), I found the liberal use of the "n" word (aparently it's used over 200 times?) to be a bit much. I did not want to be in a class surrounded by white people using that word; I did not want to hear my white teacher use that word. I did not (and do not) feel they had the right to do so.
posted by eunoia at 2:04 PM on January 4


For some people it is very hurtful.
posted by Danila at 4:33 PM on January 4


I guess I'll chime in, as one of the African-American posters.

I love Mark Twain. He's one of my favorite writers. I love Huck Finn. It's a great and powerful book, one of the great books of the American canon.

I will never understand the black folk who say they were hurt by the use of the word "nigger" in Huck Finn. Like it or not, the word is out there, and if there's one thing that's guaranteed in this life, it's that if you're black in America, eventually someone's going to sling "nigger" at you to a demeaning way. Better to hear it in the safety of a classroom than not.

Personally, what hurt me far more wasn't being taught Huck Finn, it was that I wasn't being taught James Baldwin, or Langston Hughes, or Alice Walker, or any of the other great black writers of America. I loved my Huck Finn unit in school, but it would have been even more powerful mated with Douglass's American Slave narrative.
posted by magstheaxe at 5:39 PM on January 4, 2011 [19 favorites]


Personally, what hurt me far more wasn't being taught Huck Finn, it was that I wasn't being taught James Baldwin, or Langston Hughes, or Alice Walker, or any of the other great black writers of America.

Yeah, I agree about that. I was lucky enough to have been introduced to Alice Walker in high school. However, since I grew up in NM I did get to read a lot more Latino authors than are taught in most areas of the US.
posted by krinklyfig at 5:46 PM on January 4, 2011


We had to read Ten Little Niggers at school.

A few years later I noticed the library had replaced them with the retitled And Then There Were None.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 5:46 PM on January 4, 2011


So they skipped right over the Ten Little Indians retitling?
posted by Gator at 5:52 PM on January 4, 2011


According to a v.brief look at the Wiki page, it was always the PC version, or "Indians" in the USA and "Niggers" in the UK. Story was set on Nigger Island - I had forgotton that.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 6:16 PM on January 4, 2011


I recommend The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn't, and Why by Jabari Asim.
posted by bwg at 6:47 PM on January 4, 2011


Personally, what hurt me far more wasn't being taught Huck Finn, it was that I wasn't being taught James Baldwin, or Langston Hughes, or Alice Walker, or any of the other great black writers of America.

When it comes to why they're not on the curriculum, Blackness ain't the half of it. Those particular writers also happen(ed) to be Gay, Communist, and Lesbian, respectively. (FWIW, Walker is probably at least in school libraries. Being adapted by Steven Spielberg tends to have that effect.)

Oh, and in high school, my class had to read A Raisin in the Sun, complete with "faggotty white shoes." As a queer 16-year-old, I found that particular line not insulting so much as downright hilarious -- of all the places to assert one's homophobia, a bitchy criticism of footwear has got to be among the most ironical.
posted by Sys Rq at 7:05 PM on January 4, 2011


BrotherCaine:
Slave is a more respectful term than nigger? What. The. Fuck.

Oh, agreed! Black person-->offensive term for black person-->slave??

I can't even think how they arrived at this so-called solution, and I too would be very interested to know how they handled Pap's little rant.

The alternatives offered in this thread are better, but still don't work. You can't substitute non-offensive (or less-offensive) terms and expect the text to have the same effect, when the text is aiming to be offensive.
posted by torticat at 7:48 PM on January 4, 2011


I'm going to release an edition where the N-word is replaced with the word, "spaceman."
posted by furiousxgeorge at 8:00 PM on January 4, 2011


I read that part of Huck Finn's use of language was exaggerated for effect. That is, even in Twain's time it was not *precisely* widely accepted that the language he used was polite.

I can't speak to the accuracy of that in 18th-century Missouri; but I can tell you that my Mississippi relatives in the 1960s never used that word; not because they weren't racists (many of them were), but because it was a word used by "trash", which was itself a word they used to describe white people to whom they were superior. It was a deliberate strategy down here, for many years, to keep the trash and the coloreds at one another's throats, so that neither of them would realize that the Southern Gentry had them both by the balls. Divide and conquer.
posted by steambadger at 8:40 PM on January 4, 2011


19th. 19th.
posted by steambadger at 8:49 PM on January 4, 2011


Like headnsouth mentioned - are any school districts going to adopt this version?

Huck Finn is public domain, individuals are free to do as they may. But if school districts adopt this version, this is just another step in turning the public education system into merely training for "sit down and shut up" social conditioning and another blow against teaching critical thinking.

The original unabridged text is an excellent example to discuss why "nigger" and "injun" are no longer acceptable phrases in modern parlance, and an even better starting point to discuss why and how things have changed, which is yet another springboard to addressing modern prejudicial themes like calling "lame" things "gay" or modern racist slang like "ragheads" or whatever is the perjorative du jour.

I really hope that school districts ignore this travesty, although adopting this as the de rigeur text would be expected by extrapolating what the institution has been doing, but shit like this is really feeding conspiracy theories that public education is more about making docile corporate sheep than educating a population to think for themselves and for their country.
posted by porpoise at 8:50 PM on January 4, 2011


In a world where they can take the entire chapter "The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn" out of "The Wind In The Willows" ...

Is there some place I can read about this? It's not mentioned in the Wikipedia article.
posted by Bruce H. at 9:58 PM on January 4, 2011


I'm going to release an edition where the N-word is replaced with the word, "spaceman."

Pronounced "spa-che-man"?
posted by crossoverman at 10:06 PM on January 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


somewhere i believe that mark twain is very pleased that his book is STILL stirring up shit in the 21st century - yes, there's that word - and yes, there's that somewhat stereotypical portrait of jim as a superstitious, ignorant slave - but then part of the satire is that huck and many other of the white people in that novel are not any less superstitious and ignorant

twain was a product of his time, and in some ways limited by it - but he was a true subversive - not only did he dare show a real friendship between a black and white person, but he dared portray a world where the children are wiser than their elders

it's about much more than white america's attempt to deal with the legacy and guilt of slavery - it's our country's equivalent to the canterbury tales and the first honest, unflinching view of the white underclass

it is about the moral issue of slavery, but it is about much, much more - otherwise it would be another uncle tom's cabin - remembered, but essentially unread
posted by pyramid termite at 11:16 PM on January 4, 2011


Regarding the word's popularity in the nineteenth century, there's this quote:
No man will ever be president of the United States who spells Negro with two g's.
- William Henry Seward, ca. 1856
posted by nasreddin at 11:55 PM on January 4, 2011


so this NEW SOUTH publisher is re-writing anything having to do with the OLD SOUTH to show how "new south" they are.
Well, there are a lot of black people in the south too, you know. If you read what these people have actually written, it's obvious that their concern is over African American students, not white ones.

Honestly, do you really think you're average black kid growing up in the sound really needs a lot of help to "understand racism"?

I can certainly understand the concern, but the connotations of that word have really changed over the past hundred years. I don't think "Slave" is a very good replacement, they should probably use some derogatory but less so word.
The original unabridged text is an excellent example to discuss why "nigger" and "injun" are no longer acceptable phrases in modern parlance, and an even better starting point to discuss why and how things have changed, which is yet another springboard to addressing modern prejudicial themes like calling "lame" things "gay" or modern racist slang like "ragheads" or whatever is the perjorative du jour.
That argument is like saying pick out random kids and poke them with a stick 219 times so that we can have a "springboard" to discussing why it's bad to poke people with a stick. It's complete overkill for that purpose.
posted by delmoi at 12:07 AM on January 5, 2011 [2 favorites]



I'm going to release an edition where the N-word is replaced with the word, "spaceman."

Pronounced "spa-che-man"?


I've already cast Tracy Morgan to play Spaceman Jim in the movie. Hmm, maybe I should replace the N-word with "Earthworm."
posted by furiousxgeorge at 1:53 AM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I started out reading this thread all "I can't believe that they are adulterating this classic of American literature" about it, but then I read eunoia's post and I was like "oh."

I still don't think it's a great idea to rewrite history like that, but I'm also not really convinced that Huck Finn ought to be taught in high school. I'm Canadian, so I didn't come to it until an upper-year undergrad English class whose syllabus also included James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. I'm not saying that racism is suddenly solved by being a couple years older, but in university students have choices in their classes so no one would be forced to read it if they didn't want to - and also the focus is more specific (modern American literature as opposed to just like, novels, in general) so you are having a conversation with a bit more context.

Also, one thing I haven't seen mentioned is that Twain was writing about a bygone time when the book came out. It was published in 1884/5. So there was also the intend of looking back about it. I think this is important, because Twain clearly intended the reader to be critical of the events and the world represented in the book. (You can still argue that there is a lot that's problematic about it, and I would not disagree.)
posted by SoftRain at 3:30 AM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


People who choose not to read classic, influential books on principle are probably doing their own educations a disservice: "teaching about racism" is not the same as "teaching how it feels to be the target of racism," unless the curriculum is poor and the teacher, stupid.

It is unfortunate that the subject and language is toxic to so many, since any student of any age would benefit greatly in their understanding of Americans' common and often ugly history by at least reading Sheppard Lee, then Uncle Tom's Cabin, and then Huckleberry Finn. Candide would help, too.

Of course, this requires a sensitive, open, and knowledgeable guide, and thus may well be an inappropriate curriculum for the average high school student and teacher. But a smart student of literature (and here I should note that all students are not students of literature; therein lie my misgivings about mandating Twain for children) would push these weights around through the pain, gaining strength and understanding.

I nonetheless agree that students who aren't particularly interested in their own literary education, or those who think there are stands to take against knowledge and understanding, should be free to read or not read expurgated or bowdlerized versions of whatever they like. It's a complicated and very personal issue, involving more than just academic views. In my opinion, the complexity and controversy is a large part of the continued usefulness of Huckleberry Finn, though I'll freely admit that my hindsight and privilege makes my opinion yet another of many: a perspective for some, not a prescription for all.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 6:22 AM on January 5, 2011


I have to say this thread exemplifies the reason I visit MetaFilter. Thank you to everyone so far for the reasoned and thoughtful discussion. I've learned a lot.
posted by Mental Wimp at 6:33 AM on January 5, 2011


I nonetheless agree that students who aren't particularly interested in their own literary education, or those who think there are stands to take against knowledge and understanding, should be free to read or not read expurgated or bowdlerized versions of whatever they like.

"It is unfortunate that the subject and language is toxic to so many, since any student of any age would benefit greatly"

"Aren't particularly interested in their own literary education"

"Taking a stand against knowledge and understanding"

I don't agree with framing it this way. In my opinion, the problem is not with the students or overly sensitive parents. I think the problem is either with the book or the way the book is taught. The book is flawed due to its own racism, and you can't separate that from its attempts to fight it. Racism, even just words, is hostile and aggressive and that's why it hurts and turns people off. If the book is taught at all, then I think it is imperative that the racism be mitigated. I'm not sure I trust the American system of education to handle that which is why I'd question if the book needs to be taught.

But if you are going to teach it, then I think it is critically important to cushion it with readings by black authors and to critically examine the book. What should not continue to happen is to just present it as "great literature" that is sacrosanct and we are all the better for having read. To me it is not acceptable to say the students just have to take it and it's for the best. How is it for the best? So they can appreciate more white literature?

People wonder why so many black kids don't seem to be as invested in school and don't do as well in school. Is being forced to read a book like Huck Finn more likely to help or hurt? What about the fact that a lot of people don't even understand why there is a controversy, as evidenced by the overwhelming response in this thread (at least until eunoia posted)? This makes me VERY wary. We don't need to read the words of white authors to understand racism, not when whatever they say ends up being infected by their own racism anyway.
posted by Danila at 7:53 AM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


The book is flawed due to its own racism...

You could say the same about any book that touches on the question of race. Thousands of years of nature and culture continue to push us all in the direction of tribalism, and the only way to keep from displaying one's own racism is to avoid the question altogether. I don't think that's a healthy way to approach the matter.

Here's another take on the subject.
posted by steambadger at 8:57 AM on January 5, 2011


People who choose not to read classic, influential books on principle are probably doing their own educations a disservice: "teaching about racism" is not the same as "teaching how it feels to be the target of racism," unless the curriculum is poor and the teacher, stupid.
How exactly would a "smart" teacher prevent it? It's right there in the text.
You could say the same about any book that touches on the question of race. Thousands of years of nature and culture continue to push us all in the direction of tribalism
Oh that's such bullshit. Even if you buy the Crash thesis that "Everyone is a little racist!" And therefore every book is a little racist, you still have a huge difference between a book written in 1850 -- which is trying to portray white southerners in a negative way and one written in, say, 1980.

I wonder if the reason so many white people love this book is because it lets them feel superior to the "horrible" white people portrayed in the book?

The whole "This is a great book and you're a horrible person if you don't like it!" stuff is just juvenile. There is no shortage of good books to read. We don't teach kids 120 days of Sodom in order to teach kids the dangers of libertinism.
posted by delmoi at 9:48 AM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


But a smart student of literature (and here I should note that all students are not students of literature; therein lie my misgivings about mandating Twain for children) would push these weights around through the pain, gaining strength and understanding.

I nonetheless agree that students who aren't particularly interested in their own literary education...


Seriously, wow. These are extremely erroneous & condescending statements to make. And while others have done similar in this thread, your comment was, by far, the most annoying. Congrats?

Imagine, all of those years in college spent designing my education around books & more books (my hippie college didn't have majors, instead we chose a focus for our four years. Guess what I chose?) all a waste in the end, due to my not reading Huckleberry Finn. Except, Huckleberry Finn as a story is pretty archetypal. So I've really kind of read Huckleberry Finn many times without ever having actually read it. The implication that this book is essential and more important than being true to my own discomfort (to use a mild word) is insulting and dismissive.

I have made no argument for or against the removal of the n-word, though if the original edition were being destroyed, leaving only this new edition, I would have been just as pissed off as some of the people in this thread. I have only recounted my experience with the hope that someone would try to understand that it is not just a word and that some words have an insane amount of power (I somehow managed to learn about the power of words despite the hole in my internal library where Huck Finn should apparently be).

And of course that power and the history behind that power need to be discussed, but maybe some venues are better than others for those sorts of dialogues. My [white] boyfriend studies abolitionism (and has written some groundbreaking stuff) and we have great (sometimes heated) discussions about that power; I was not ready or well-equipped to have those discussions (especially not at the school that I attended) when I was younger. And I'm glad that I realized that.
posted by eunoia at 10:02 AM on January 5, 2011


If the book is taught at all, then I think it is imperative that the racism be mitigated.

I'm not sure about that. Life is filled with pain and things that make us uncomfortable. And one of the problems with modern societies is that we can't bring ourselves to listen to other points of view. Literature many times makes you confront ugly situations and thoughts. It doesn't mean you should necessarily agree with them, but you should at least try to grasp where they are coming from.

Also, Huckleberry Finn may have racist passages, but it isn't the Turner Diaries (Twain was a supporter of abolition, emancipation and universal suffrage). Its historically and literary significant because it influenced so much of latter literature. It is a book worthy of study.

Again, to reiterate the point: Education is about the confrontation of ideas, some of them ugly and uncomfortable. Teaching kinds how to deal with them should kind of be one of its main goals.
posted by Omon Ra at 10:21 AM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


According to a v.brief look at the Wiki page, it was always the PC version, or "Indians" in the USA and "Niggers" in the UK. Story was set on Nigger Island - I had forgotten that.

FYI, this isn't small potatoes. Ten Little Niggers is the biggest ever selling murder mystery by the biggest ever selling book author [4 billion books!], and it's the 7th most printed book of all time. Aww-kward.

Brits and citizens of Commonwealth countries are probably familiar with the works of another English lady, children's author Enid Blyton [5th most translated author ever, 600 million books sold].

There has been no shortage of dramas with her over the years. Examples being use of the N word, rampant sexism, main characters in blackface, an elf called Chinky, and the infamous hoo-ha regarding Noddy sharing a bed with an older man in Big Ears.

Some books had characters changed or renamed in later editions, and for TV shows.

Five Go Mad in Dorset is a great little comedy that takes the piss out of her sexism and other anachronistic stylings in her Famous Five series of children's mystery adventures.

posted by uncanny hengeman at 10:48 AM on January 5, 2011


blah blah, irony or whatever, but can we just agree, as a community, not to put the n-word on the front page?
Nigga please...
posted by dougrayrankin at 10:52 AM on January 5, 2011


Five Go Mad in Dorset and its followup, Five Go Mad on Mescalin are on Hulu.
posted by Gator at 10:52 AM on January 5, 2011


Not really WTF. "Slave" isn't derogatory. It's neutral. It's a functional description.

So were lame and cretin at one point. I guess slave has become neutral again. I'm sure it's been stigmatized in the past. Oh well, context is everything.
posted by BrotherCaine at 10:58 AM on January 5, 2011


Five Go Mad in Dorset and its followup, Five Go Mad on Mescalin are on Hulu.

Starring comedy giants Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders right at the beginning of their careers. Also writer / director Peter Richardson [Eat the Rich], Adrian Edmondson [Vivian from The Young Ones] and Robbie Coltrane [the Harry Potter series].

posted by uncanny hengeman at 11:05 AM on January 5, 2011


If the book is taught at all, then I think it is imperative that the racism be mitigated.

what

The racism is the whole point of the book. Sanitize it, and you might as well just teach Go Dog Go.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:06 AM on January 5, 2011


With it's theme of a mania for movement framed by echolallic prose, Go Dog Go reveals the relentless dissatisfaction of modern life. The juxtaposition of cheerful primary color illustrations actually highlights the underlying grimness of suburban conformity.
posted by BrotherCaine at 11:12 AM on January 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


Seriously, wow. These are extremely erroneous & condescending statements to make.

Yeah, I'd agree with that.

Except, Huckleberry Finn as a story is pretty archetypal. So I've really kind of read Huckleberry Finn many times without ever having actually read it. The implication that this book is essential and more important than being true to my own discomfort (to use a mild word) is insulting and dismissive.

Well, all (good) stories are archetypal, so Huck Finn isn't special in that regard. And it's only "essential" if you're a 19th century American lit scholar. If your focus is something else, then it's probably enough to know the basics about it so you can grok references/allusions/snark about it.

I do disagree that you've "kind of" read something without having read it. You might know about it, be familiar with its place in literary history, understand cultural references to it, but that's still not the same as having read it. This doesn't mean I think you should gallop over to Project Gutenberg and read it. But seeing Clueless really isn't the same as reading Emma.
posted by rtha at 11:13 AM on January 5, 2011


Do You Like My Hat: A Poststructural Look at Phallogocentrism in the Work of P.D. Eastman.
posted by shakespeherian at 11:15 AM on January 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


The racism is the whole point of the book. Sanitize it, and you might as well just teach Go Dog Go.

Same goes for My Old Kentucky Home, and that manages to live on and fare well in expurgated form.

About AHF, the thing that always bothered me was Tom Sawyer. What a little fucker. While I knew that part of his complicated scheme to free Jim at the end was comedic, the fact that Jim was already free always bugged. Now I'm thinking it may be an analogy for something ...
posted by mrgrimm at 11:24 AM on January 5, 2011


I think Tom is only in there as a connection to the previous (and vastly superior, IMO) book. He really is a bit of a dick in HF, but in his own book (seriously, folks, best Religion=Superstition=Baloney novel ever; maybe teach that one instead?) he's just a nice, if mischievous, little kid.

Same goes for My Old Kentucky Home, and that manages to live on and fare well in expurgated form.

Huh? Was the racism being displayed in that song in order that it should be vilified? Seems to me it's a song about how gosh-darn swell Kentucky is, and they took out the bit about the "darkies" because it was, in itself, racist. That's not the same at all.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:00 PM on January 5, 2011


I have only recounted my experience with the hope that someone would try to understand that it is not just a word and that some words have an insane amount of power

That's very true. But it's also true that the power of some words varies from person to person, and that with some words, they have as much power as you choose to give them.

I don't mean to suggest that "nigger" is one of those words. There was a great deal of political power tied up in it for a long time (and arguably still is). But I do suggest that in the context of reading the book in school, it doesn't really have any more power than what students assign to it.


The implication that this book is essential and more important than being true to my own discomfort (to use a mild word) is insulting and dismissive.

posted by eunoia at 1:02 PM



With all due respect, the world is under no obligation to pad its corners in order to make sure you don't experience discomfort.


I thought the quote found here was rather enlightening:

Dr Sarah Churchwell, senior lecturer in US literature and culture at the University of East Anglia, said the development made her "incandescent" with anger. "The fault lies with the teaching, not the book. You can't say 'I'll change Dickens so it is compatible with my teaching method'. Twain's books are not just literary documents but historical documents, and that word is totemic because it encodes all of the violence of slavery. The point of the book is that Huckleberry Finn starts out racist in a racist society, and stops being racist and leaves that society. These changes mean the book ceases to show the moral development of his character. They have no merit and are misleading to readers. The whole point of literature is to expose us to different ideas and different eras, and they won't always be nice and benign. It's dumbing down."


The more I think about this, the more frustrated I get. I'm starting to think that Black Americans should instead demand that "nigger" be left in Huck Finn, because when you get right down to it, removing it actually demeans our rise out of slavery, and destroys one of the pivotal works that helped humanize us in the eyes of our oppressors.
posted by magstheaxe at 12:13 PM on January 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


Same goes for My Old Kentucky Home, and that manages to live on and fare well in expurgated form.
posted by mrgrimm at 2:24 PM on January 5


It's certainly resulted in generations of Kentuckians who aren't sure of the words of "My Old Kentucky Home" anymore. Seems like every generation grew up with a different version, and now no one's certain of the words.
posted by magstheaxe at 12:16 PM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure about that. Life is filled with pain and things that make us uncomfortable. And one of the problems with modern societies is that we can't bring ourselves to listen to other points of view.
The question isn't "should we read it" the question "Should we force highschool students to read it". If a book they are forced to read causes them pain, then the result is that they will hate the book and maybe hate reading. The fact that you love something doesn't give you the right to force it on other people.

And again, there is a huge difference between reading a book for yourself and reading it socially with a group of other people.

Secondly, Huckleberry Finn isn't about "listening to other points of view" it's about mocking and deriding white 19th century southerners, for the enjoyment of white 19th century northerners who considered themselves their moral superiors.
posted by delmoi at 12:57 PM on January 5, 2011


Secondly, Huckleberry Finn isn't about "listening to other points of view" it's about mocking and deriding white 19th century southerners, for the enjoyment of white 19th century northerners who considered themselves their moral superiors.

I wonder how many other great works of fiction we can reduce to such a small rubble pile.
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:41 PM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Huh? Was the racism being displayed in that song in order that it should be vilified? Seems to me it's a song about how gosh-darn swell Kentucky is, and they took out the bit about the "darkies" because it was, in itself, racist. That's not the same at all.

The original song seems a bit more nuanced than that.

From PBS American Experience:

Foster undoubtedly recognized some of his own feelings about African Americans and slavery in Uncle Tom's Cabin. The novel inspired "My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night!," one of Foster's most enduring hits. Written in standard English rather than dialect, and expressing deep, authentic emotion, it represented another move away from blackface. In the song's original draft, Foster titled it "Poor Uncle Tom, Good Night," and included a chorus:

Oh, good night, good night, Poor Uncle Tom Grieve not for your old Kentucky home Your [sic] bound for a better land Old Uncle Tom.


The second and third verses of the original song include:

The day goes by like a shadow o'er the heart,
With sorrow, where all was delight,
The time has come when the darkies have to part,
Then my old Kentucky home, goodnight.


and

The head must bow and the back will have to bend,
Wherever the darky may go;
A few more days, and the trouble all will end,
In the field where the sugar-canes grow;


Thinking and reading about it now, it seems to be a farewell song from an old, dying slave, but I always read it as an indication of the huge effect of slaves in the development of the South, i.e. it's time for the slaves to be freed, and yet the South cannot continue (as it was) without their (unpaid) contributions.
posted by mrgrimm at 2:51 PM on January 5, 2011


It's been a long while since I read it but from what I recall, Jim and Huck become friends despite society saying otherwise and when they travel down the river they are symbolically outside of society, where their friendship can flourish and when they go to back to shore they are returning to a kind of hell on Earth where people are enslaved because of the colour of their skin among many other things, and their roles are strictly defined, and they're not fond of that. Huck and Jim both have only the language they've been taught to communicate with, which is also, of course a point. Tom, I thought, was pretty much a conformist or a person, young, being shaped by his society with little understanding of what he is doing and who he is imitating, and ultimately, what he may become. Tom appears more clever because he seems to show he acts like the adults in the society.

I really don't see how eliminating a key word from the book and therefore the literature out of it is a good idea. And if you ignore elements like symbolism, metaphor, etc., and just study the extra-literary elements (i.e. feminism, Marxism, sociology, etc.), eliminating key words strips it of that meaning as well.

I think this is an extremely bad and insulting idea. What's going to follow it? The Glenn Beck edition?
posted by juiceCake at 5:24 PM on January 5, 2011


Life is filled with pain and things that make us uncomfortable. And one of the problems with modern societies is that we can't bring ourselves to listen to other points of view. Literature many times makes you confront ugly situations and thoughts. It doesn't mean you should necessarily agree with them, but you should at least try to grasp where they are coming from.

Okay, first of all, by the time they're being forced to sit through Huck Finn, most black kids already know quite a bit about racism, the discomfort and the pain of it, and what many white people think of them. They might not be able to articulate it or always pinpoint what it is, but they know about it. Much of what is in these books is basic level stuff for black people who learn through experience with it and sharing with each other. This "other point of view" is not so foreign to us at all. I think one of the disconnects here stems from the fact that much of white American culture has strong racist elements that whites do not perceive.

The racism is the whole point of the book. Sanitize it, and you might as well just teach Go Dog Go.

You think mitigating the racism by exposing it (and I'm not just talking about the racial slurs, but Twain's own racism for e.g. the coonish portrayal of Jim), critiquing it, and presenting points of view from black writers both contemporary to Twain and subsequent is "sanitization"? Because that's the sort of thing I'm talking about, but I think you might have thought I meant something else.

I've actually decided I don't really agree with just removing the word "nigger" because I think that does a poor job of addressing the issues. Just like when the Dr. Laura kerfuffle blew up, to me the bigger problem was the racism inherent in the arguments and statements she made to the caller, and casually using a racial slur over the air was just the relatively inconsequential cherry on top. But make no mistake, that word has power, as do all words. The power of words is the whole point of this discussion.
posted by Danila at 5:36 PM on January 5, 2011


Secondly, Huckleberry Finn isn't about "listening to other points of view" it's about mocking and deriding white 19th century southerners, for the enjoyment of white 19th century northerners who considered themselves their moral superiors.

I wonder what Samuel Clemens got out of it, then.
posted by shakespeherian at 5:58 PM on January 5, 2011


"...it's about mocking and deriding white 19th century southerners, for the enjoyment of white 19th century northerners who considered themselves their moral superiors"

See, the problem with that, as demonstrated with any recent map labeled in blue and red, is that it's true.
posted by digitalprimate at 6:16 PM on January 5, 2011


I watched Malcom X with about 20 African American fellow counsellors at a camp not far from Chicago.

It was the last night of staff induction week before the kiddies came piling in. The 2IC was the only one with a VCR and it was a small cabin so we were really crammed in tight. I think there was only two other honkies in the room, both from Australia, too.

There's a scene where a white girl goes up to Malcom X on the street and asks if she can do anything to help. "Nothing. At. All." was his terse reply. The room burst out into fist pumps and "yeahs!"

It was a very uncomfortable experience! Surely they coulda chosen something a little more, shall we say, welcoming to watch as a group.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 6:57 PM on January 5, 2011


Seriously, wow. These are extremely erroneous & condescending statements to make. And while others have done similar in this thread, your comment was, by far, the most annoying. Congrats?

I'm sorry, my clumsiness clearly clouded my point. Of course my statements are erroneous and condescending, coming, as I wrote, from a point of privilege and hindsight (having read the book in question, as a white male adult, along with other, earlier novels exploring slavery and racism and the human condition).

As I wrote, I am not really convinced this is an appropriate curriculum for high school children, and as I clearly failed to convey, I think any teacher who, for example, forces the only black student in the room to read all the offensive passages, is doing a disservice to the class and the book alike.

On rereading what I wrote, I can see my heavy-handed approach was insulting, and I'm sorry for that. I also meant to write "serious student of American literature," because I do think American literature is inextricable from American history, and that slavery and racism are among the most important aspects of that continuum, but I didn't make that clear either; I appreciate that what I did say was insulting, and I apologize.

The more I look at it, the more I agree with you, that most of my points were bullshit of the rudest order. If I could go back and do it over, I would probably stick with:

It is unfortunate that the subject and language is toxic to so many, since any student of any age would benefit greatly in their understanding of Americans' common and often ugly history by at least reading Sheppard Lee, then Uncle Tom's Cabin, and then Huckleberry Finn. Candide would help, too.

...and I'd shitcan the rest of my bloviating. I don't know what motivated me to pad this with insults; I understand your offense, and I'm sorry to have caused it.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 8:25 PM on January 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Also, it would be different if it were, say, an elective honors English class where kids new they were going to get more challenging material.

Anyway, what annoys me here isn't the book itself but rather the high-handed and elitist responses that dismiss any actual discomfort caused by the book as being mental weakness from people who can't "deal" with it.
posted by delmoi at 12:42 AM on January 6, 2011


uncanny hengeman,

I watched Malcom X with about 20 African American fellow counsellors at a camp not far from Chicago...

There's a scene where a white girl goes up to Malcom X on the street and asks if she can do anything to help. "Nothing. At. All." was his terse reply. The room burst out into fist pumps and "yeahs!"

It was a very uncomfortable experience! Surely they coulda chosen something a little more, shall we say, welcoming to watch as a group.


And this is really exactly the point. We're talking at least thousands of black students every year who are forced to sit through "uncomfortable experiences" with racism-laden classics of white literature. And they're told they should like it. So I'm assuming that since you know what it's like to experience something close to that (and not as a kid), then you get why books like Huck Finn can be a problem. So one potentially good way of teaching these books is to teach it in contrast with classics of black literature, like The Biography of Malcolm X.

If white students are made uncomfortable by that, well when they leave the classroom their privilege means they don't have to be so uncomfortable again. Blacks don't have that option.
posted by Danila at 4:41 AM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Delmoi, I think some of those responses are inevitable when they come, like mine, from the high-handed elite, trained in their privilege to seek the author's voice in literature and listen only to it, at the expense of one's own. How a novel makes me feel doesn't come into play at all, the context is historical and literary and centers on accessing a remote worldview. I am conditioned (though certainly not coerced) into separating my visceral reactions from my appreciation of these historical and literary contexts, certainly a stance made easier in this case by my privileged sense that the way Twain treats blacks is remote and historical. I should not assume that such a sense is true to the larger world, or that it invalidates others' strong reactions, and I apologize for having said so. In this situation the sensitive and valid approach would have been silence.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 4:43 AM on January 6, 2011


BrotherCaine:
"Slave" is a more respectful term than "nigger"?
What. The. Fuck.


More than any other i can imagine, this eight-word question sums up the history of the United States. Bravo, BrotherCaine.
posted by eustatic at 6:35 AM on January 6, 2011


With all due respect, the world is under no obligation to pad its corners in order to make sure you don't experience discomfort.

And I had no obligation as a kid (& in that environment) to endure that discomfort. So we kind of just came full circle. Unless, of course, you think I did have that obligation, to which my response would be, "Uh, no."

Look: I'm glad that you enjoyed reading Huckleberry Finn in school and that your experience was a positive one, but your experience is not my experience nor is it the correct experience.
posted by eunoia at 8:30 AM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


If white students are made uncomfortable by that, well when they leave the classroom their privilege means they don't have to be so uncomfortable again. Blacks don't have that option.

Crikey!

We're not talking a centuries old reactionary institution like schools and school curricula. It was a few senior counsellors at Blockbuster thinking "hmmm, what movie should we rent as a bonding experience during staff orientation week?"

Bunch of idiots, as far as I'm concerned.

BTW, I can see how it is uncomfortable for black students eg: the Huck Finn example. I just thought I'd throw that story in because it came to mind when I was reading this thread.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 9:43 AM on January 6, 2011


your experience is not my experience nor is it the correct experience

I so want this on a T shirt.
posted by flabdablet at 6:03 AM on January 7, 2011


And I had no obligation as a kid (& in that environment) to endure that discomfort. So we kind of just came full circle. Unless, of course, you think I did have that obligation, to which my response would be, "Uh, no."

Look: I'm glad that you enjoyed reading Huckleberry Finn in school and that your experience was a positive one, but your experience is not my experience nor is it the correct experience.

posted by eunoia at 11:30 AM on January 6


And your experience is not my experience, nor the correct experience, nor the only experience. But with my experience, at least I learned something.

Sometimes, learning things is a painful process. It was painful for me reading Maya Angelou's I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and Walker's The Color Purple --my God, they talk about rape of young girls in those books.

But I wouldn't trade my discomfort in reading those books for all the tea in China, for what I learned about women and strength and inner peace and overcoming obstacles was worth it. And with Huck Finn, when he says "I'll go to Hell", I learned that two hundred uses of "nigger" was ultimately worth learning that sometimes society is just plain wrong, and you stand for what's right, even if it means going to Hell.

You're right. You were under no obligation read Huck Finn and endure that discomfort. But I have learned (thanks to Angelou and Walker and others) to look forward to literary discomfort, because I'll pass through it and come through the other side a stronger, more knowledgable person.

May all your learning experiences be free of pain, eunoia.

Me? I say bring it on.
posted by magstheaxe at 10:11 AM on January 7, 2011 [5 favorites]


I learned that two hundred uses of "nigger" was ultimately worth learning that sometimes society is just plain wrong, and you stand for what's right, even if it means going to Hell.

Yeah, I seriously didn't need Huckleberry Finn to teach me how to work through painful experiences (I had to figure that out way before Huck Finn ever came up and in situations where hearing/reading the n-word 200 times would have been a welcome respite), though, again, I'm glad that it taught you that. I say that without sarcasm.

But, I wish you had also learned more about empathy, especially when someone else's feelings are so alien to your own. And that it's okay for people to know themselves well enough to make decisions based on that knowledge. Sensitivity is not a flaw. Really.

This has become kind of back and forth and besides that being sort of dumb, I don't think there is anything more for me to say on this topic.
posted by eunoia at 3:46 PM on January 7, 2011


Roger Ebert chimes in.
posted by Omon Ra at 10:06 PM on January 7, 2011


Oops, I got it wrong, it's not by Ebert, he merely tweeted the link.
posted by Omon Ra at 10:16 PM on January 7, 2011


Roger Ebert chimes in on the Huffington Post's chiming in on his Tweets.
posted by Gator at 6:13 AM on January 8, 2011


Chainsawsuit does the classics
posted by shakespeherian at 8:06 AM on January 10, 2011


I've been following this discussion with interest. I love Huckleberry Finn and hate bowdlerization, but eunoia's experience (and some of those in one of the links) gave me something to chew on. Anyway, back in 1957 I had an experience with bowdlerized Twain. I had recommended Huckleberry Finn to another kid. He came back, said it was boring and stupid. I said, "What about Buck's death?" Buck is a kid in an Arkansas family that Huck is staying with. They are good friends but Buck's family (good-hearted people) are involved in a feud with another family. Buck and his kin ride out to kill their enemies but ride into an ambush. Huck watches from hiding:
The boys jumped for the river -- both of them hurt --
and as they swum down the current the men run along
the bank shooting at them and singing out, "Kill
them, kill them!" It made me so sick I most fell out
of the tree. I ain't a-going to tell ALL that happened --
it would make me sick again if I was to do that. I
wished I hadn't ever come ashore that night to see
such things. I ain't ever going to get shut of them --
lots of times I dream about them.
...

When I got down out of the tree I crept along down
the river bank a piece, and found the two bodies laying
in the edge of the water, and tugged at them till I got
them ashore; then I covered up their faces, and got
away as quick as I could. I cried a little when I was
covering up Buck's face, for he was mighty good to me.
Well, that just tore me up when I first read it. So I was surprised when my friend said, "That isn't in the book." I picked up his copy (from our school library) and, sure enough, that passage was missing. Also missing, the gunfight between Boggs and Sherburn including, IIRC, the attempt to lynch Sherburn and his speech about human cowardice. So the book was gutted to remove the violence. This happened to a lot of stuff then -- comics, fairy tales, Walt Kelly satirized the bowdlerization of Mother Goose rhymes. The US goes into a panic over children and violence right after a war... but don't get me started on that. Anyway, the violence was removed, the N-word remained.
The point is, Huckleberry Finn was recognized as a dangerous book that has the power to change people's thinking. So maybe it shouldn't be taught at all.
posted by CCBC at 2:16 PM on January 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


The point is, Huckleberry Finn was recognized as a dangerous book that has the power to change people's thinking. So maybe it shouldn't be taught at all.

... That's the conclusion you drew from this experience? Wow.
posted by nasreddin at 2:38 PM on January 10, 2011


Are you really that humorless, nasreddin?
posted by CCBC at 2:11 PM on January 11, 2011


Well, either that or bad at reading comprehension.
posted by nasreddin at 1:03 AM on January 12, 2011


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