Thursday, January 6, 2011

Censorship will not make anything better

One of the most shocking reports from the United States was a relatively small one: it seems that a man who has the barefaced cheek to describe himself as a Mark Twain scholar will be publishing editions of the two great novels Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn without what he refers to as "racial slurs". In other words the words "nigger" and "injun" will not appear in the text. Instead of the first one there will be the word "slave" and it is not clear what there will be instead of the second one.

I am glad to say the news has been greeted with an uproar of indignation. The comments on the piece I have linked to are all negative, pointing out the ridiculousness of it all. The Freedom Association has done a good job putting together some of the arguments. I can't help thinking about one of the best early teen novel that came my way some years ago, Nat Hentoff's The Day They Came to Arrest the Book. It deals with a school that decides to ban Huckleberry Finn because of the many unpleasant words in it and the fight against that ban in the name of freedom of speech and the need to understand history.

Professor Gribben, it seems, is using this method to ensure that the books are read at all in some American schools as teachers say they can't or, more like, won't teach them because of those painful words. The fact that they have not the ability or the courage to explain why those painful words were used, how Mark Twain made sure that his readers shared his outrage and how things have changed is a sad reflection on those teachers.

A bowdlerized version will not do much for the children who cannot face up to the truth of history or for teachers who have no ability to explain. It means that they will never really understand the horrors of slavery on the one hand or Mark Twain's brilliant writing and angry denunciation on the other. "Nigger" Jim is one of the finest characters in literature. Furthermore, by the end of the book he is a free man, so calling him a slave makes no sense. "Injun" Joe, on the other hand, is one of the nastiest, most frightening characters around and even his death is terrifying. And that is what they were called in Mississippi in those days and in many other place for many years afterwards. That is reality. The idea that ignorance should be perpetuated because of some artificially cultivated sensitivity about the past is very sad and one knows exactly who will suffer - the children who will not get a chance to read the real novels of Mark Twain.

UPDATE: When I was writing that post yesterday I wanted to refer to one of the most memorable moments in Huckleberry Finn, when Huck's pap, a drunken good-for-nothing liability complains bitterly about a free "nigger" who is regarded as a real human being and can vote. Clearly the monologue is powerful as other people remember it, too. I found that out when I discussed the whole issue with another fan of the book yesterday and this morning the rant is quoted in full by James Taranto in the Wall Street Journal. He has some harsh words for Professor Gribben and others of that ilk who do not know and will not learn history. (And I don't care how well known Professor Gribben is as a Twain expert.)

1 comment:

  1. And when they'e reinststed that, they can put the cigar back into I.K. Brunel's mouth.