GUEST COLUMN: ‘Huckleberry’ has a new adventure
Special to the Tribune
Respected Mark Twain scholar Dr. Alan Gribben, chair of the English Department at Auburn University, has cleaved the Twain World in twain. By spearheading the publication of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” without the dreaded n-word, Gribben has dragged “Huck” into the 21st century.
In substituting “slave” for the debilitating word that appears four times in “Tom Sawyer” and 219 times in “Huck Finn,” Gribben has destigmatized those boy books for the 21st century classroom … or has he? Arguments are flying across the Ethernet like our national identity is at stake, and maybe it is.
Interestingly, back in 1885, the “n-word” was a kinder term than “slave.” Over time this epithet has doubled and tripled in pre-emptive force to become the strongest secular blasphemy in the American lexicon. Why? Because it carries an air of oppression when dropped from white lips.
Personally, I don’t use the word when teaching “Huck” to AP English students. The word is hurtful when spoken, and if you are being hurt you can’t learn. But let’s look at both sides of the argument.
Gribben, in his introduction to the NewSouth publication, states “We may applaud Twain’s ability as a prominent American literary realist to record the speech of a particular region during a specific historical era, but abusive racial insults that bear distinct connotations of permanent inferiority nonetheless repulse modern-day readers.”
Jocelyn Chadwick, assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who wrote a definitive book, “The Jim Dilemma: Reading Race in Huckleberry Finn,” weighs in with this elegant comment: “Given the re-emergence of racial rhetoric from a variety of interesting venues – Congress, Arizona, South Carolina, for example – it would seem to me Twain’s novel is a greater must-read than ever before with all of the original language. The language in ‘Huck’ was, is, and will always be offensive and uncomfortable; it should be; it must be, until we ‘get it.'”
In my estimation, if Ms. Chadwick could teach “Huck” to all our 11th-graders, we would not be in need of an expurgated “Huck Finn.”
Noted Twain scholar and Stanford English professor Shelley Fisher Fishkin suggests the attenuated edition of “Huck” should make us shudder. “Facing history in all its offensiveness is crucial to understanding it and transcending it, and literature is uniquely positioned to help us do that.” (I would kiss the hem of her garment – if it were a new one).
But I also like this from Kevin MacDonnell: “I have an uneasy feeling about tinkering with Twain’s texts for any reason. But if the reason is to bring the text to a readership that would otherwise not experience the book at all, and the textual change is openly acknowledged, then maybe this is a good thing, a sort of ‘Huck Finn’ with training wheels.”
Though my favorite argument to date is this from Richard Lawson: “So … great! I myself am working on a new edition of Othello in which the word ‘Moor’ is replaced with ‘nice man.'”
Martha Gould, revered Nevada Librarian Emeritus, told me on the phone, “McAvoy, it’s not censorship because we will still have a choice; but that being said, I believe, as hateful and hurtful as that word has become over time, it is denigrating to Mark Twain and to our history to attempt to sanitize ‘Huckleberry Finn.'” Now, as Martha Gould is my hero, where does that leave me?
In my humble opinion, Dr. Gribben is giving us a tool with which to teach “Huck” at the high school level without the peculiar word that sears the eyeball and make makes the young African-American want to put the book aside and be done with it.
The arguments will continue to flow, and I can only guess that Mr. Clemens is looking down on Dr. Gribben from above, or up at Dr. Gribben from somewhere else, and smiling at the controversy that “Huck” has created 125 years after his birth.
“But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest,” Huck Finn said, “because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”
– McAvoy Layne, proprietor of the Mark Twain Cultural Center at Incline Village, will address the NewSouth edition of “Huckleberry Finn” at 6 p.m. Saturday. The center is at 760 Mays Blvd., Suite 10, in the Village Center at Incline.