As a literature teacher and one offering my students a discussion of deconstruction these past weeks, it is impossible for me not to address the recent controversy around Huck Finn. For those of you too concerned about the real news of George Clooney in Sudan, the Golden Globes, and the unending transient drama of Matt Brady to be concerned with such a marginal issue as the censorship of art, Auburn University professor Alan Gribben has proposed and will be releasing a revised version of the novel which replaces over 200 instances of the word “nigger” with “slave.” His revised version also replaces other slurs, such as replacing “injun” with “Indian.”
To his credit, Gribben is not suggesting that this is merely censorship of an offensive word or two. In our cultural climate sensitive to racial identity and oppressive rhetoric, Gribben has noted correctly that many public schools have removed Huck from their reading lists. More, it is challenging to teach the novel’s social critique and humor without “obsessing” over the racial slurs. As a teacher of the novel himself, he also candidly remarks that using the word makes him uncomfortable.
Critics of the move raise several issues, of course. One does not alter a classic. If kids aren’t ready for it, don’t teach it to kids. Political correctness has gone too far. Censorship violates our Constitution. Today’s students say and hear far worse than anything Twain would write.
The issue is a fascinating one as it parallels so many others we have seen. I’m thinking of Disney’s attempts to build historical theme parks around Gettysburg or Manassas, the outcry over sacrilegious construction around “Ground Zero” in New York, the Taliban destruction of Buddha statues, revisions of the works of Michelangelo, Spielberg’s doctoring of ET, and the Politically Correct Bible. In all of these cases, defenders argue for a sacred historical center which must be preserved: the words or ancient art around God or prophet, the intent of the artist, the memorial of death.
The first problem with the defense of Twain’s original text is the claim that such an historical center exists and that such grounds are worth preserving. There is fair evidence that Twain expected his tales of Huck and Jim to be a long-running series, not a single novel. The opening line of the novel was revised at least three times as different drafts of the novel (written, stopped, rewritten, and redirected over 7 years) reveal. And the novel has already been revised countless times in various forms since the original text, including a 1955 version that erases Jim’s character completely.
But presume that Twain’s original text as published is the one deemed worth preserving. What is the integrity of meaning which Gribben wishes to preserve? Is it, as he suggests, the social critique? It is difficult to ignore Twain’s biting commentaries in the work—everything from domestic violence to religious zealotry, and from literacy to politics. By removing “nigger,” does Gribben refocus contemporary readers on what they “should” be finding or does he obscure some of that same social commentary? Is Twain’s original text about politics or about the humor, an attack on American romanticism or—just an adventure story? We cannot and do not know what Twain wanted us to read into the work (if anything more than chuckles); all we have are his pen strokes, readerly cues, scripted in a late 19th-century context of readers. As 21st century readers, we cannot expect his cues to be understood the same way as his own historical readership. My only point here is that while we can make historical studies of Twain’s meaning, we cannot reliably name an original meaning which insists upon preservation.
Suppose, however, that we set meaning aside and defend Twain’s work as it was originally set down on the grounds that it is historically accurate in its original form, that history (or an author’s work) should be preserved for its own sake, regardless of value or meaning. Here again, we run into problems. For one, why then would we obsess over Twain’s paginated scribbles over those of Peter Tewes or Isabella Williams (random names I will guess existed somewhere as Twain’s—I mean, Clemens’s—contemporaries)? If we are concerned about honoring the author’s words for respect to the author, the same question applies, but also an added concern: to what degree are the words of an author a respectful representation of him? I, for one, am very concerned about the preservation of my Twitter archive, but I suspect no one will work obsessively to do so in respect to my wishes. No, it is not any history that we want preserved but particular histories which we have identified as sacred, as American classics.
In other words, there is absolutely nothing about the claim of “original” or “historical” that alone merits preservation. What we insist upon preserving are particular works of art that we have deemed valuable after the original conception. Nothing in art is therefore valuable in its conception but in the social prejudices which later value or dismiss it.
Huck Finn has been deemed one of the “Great American Novels,” alongside works like Moby Dick, Catcher in the Rye, and Infinite Jest. It is a mark of the American literary canon, or center of cultural identity. To touch Twain is to alter our conceptions of who we are. In this sense, literature is “sacred” to culture and the hate mail that Gribben has received is predictable.
It is a short challenge to see how the definition of an American canon or cultural center is problematic. Just as the defenders of a trade-center-turned-blast-zone attempt to honor its symbolism but ignore the far more original burial grounds and holy places of the Manhattan Indians, just as the raising of a Confederate flag simultaneously stirs emotions of pride and repulsion for its Dixie pride and slave history, and just as the Taliban destroy the more ancient statuary of Buddhism in the name of preserving the original edicts of Islam, defining the cultural identity of our country is a political or ideological undertaking. The Great American Novel and the literary canon are selected predominantly by their teaching. In other words, the teachability of the work (as defined historically by a largely white male professorship according to literary valuations like “social critique” and “dialect,” “unity” and “theme”) makes it worth preserving.
Do we teach a work because it is art? Or do we call it art because we teach it?
To be sure, the crafting of Huck Finn by Twain is meticulous and respectable, worthy of analysis for its nuance. Its historical durability attests to this, as well. But what if it no longer speaks to our American identity? Should we continue to teach it? Should it remain part of the canon? Should we worry if its racial epithets are preserved or removed? And here’s Gribben’s first paradox: He wishes to revise the classic in order to continue its teachability as a classic.
This leaves us with the question of whether the meanings in Huck Finn are, indeed, worthy of being called art in the 21st century. Many around the controversy have argued that learning about our cultural growth and development is historically vital and that the removal of racism (even when, for instance, reading our Constitution aloud in Congress) “whitewashes” our history’s thinking and errors, advancing a pristine mythology of pure Founding Fathers and flawless philosophers. I agree that this is a danger. In one sense, reading works life Huck offers us the very discussion that Gribben seeks to avoid (in favor of his own choices of teachable themes).
More, a 21st century American culture by Gribben’s own admission is “obsessing” over a single word; this obsession is part of our current identity, the kind of thing which defines a canon. In this case, then, at least part of the reason that Huck Finn remains a classic is because use of the word “nigger” is cautionary today, because it warrants levels of discussion of its use in the narrative and its efforts to censor it today. Gribben’s second paradox is this: In attempting to preserve its classic nature, he seeks to remove a word which works to continue its status as one.
I admit to teaching the novel myself years ago. Teaching in Oak Park High School at the time with students predominantly minorities and mostly African American, Twain’s dialect and racism obviously came up, but so did several other issues, most often Twain’s outlook on our moral education and the failings of “sivilization.” In the end, my students revised the ending of this classic, claiming (rightly, I think) not that the novel was racist or that they were offended by Twain, but that the overly-Romantic ending was a disappointment . . . artistically flawed. They were upset, not about racial epithets but that he was removed from the narrative action in favor of the childish Tom Sawyer.
I don’t teach Huck now in favor of other novels of racial identity. The novel is long, has various picaresque excursions which I believe are sometimes more absurd adventure over social commentary, and it has an ending which I believe flawed for the kinds of curriculum I teach. But this does not mean I disapprove of its original text in the classroom. In fact, my students’ interpretation of Huck’s and Jim’s relationship has always been fairly direct and justified: Jim isn’t a slave or “nigger” but a father-figure and source of wisdom for the young Huck as they drift down their mythological river. Twain’s squiggles rarely point actual readers towards racism but towards anti-racism (which was the reason for an early ban on the work: a racially-charged country could not imagine a true human relationship evolving between a black man and a white boy). Twain himself writes in his letters that “the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning;” in other words, the author knew exactly what he was up to, creating a fascinating tension between the rich friendship he develops and the racist dialect of the times. The revisionist approach by Gribben would destroy this discussion.
None of the foregoing, however, suggests that I am against the revised text. There is consequence, cost, to arbitrarily changing our history’s rhetoric for our own political purposes as Gribben wishes to. But the status quo is hardly innocent: defending art on the basis of its origins, intent, or purity of meaning is fallacious, because none of these exist. Defenders of Huck Finn who cite such arguments carry little weight with me—they mythologize a history which has always been revision and retracing, revision and retracing. There is nothing sacred to defend (or to label as sacred).
I favor Gribben’s new text, all 7500 copies of its original print run, the same way I favor the 1955 film which omits Jim and the 1948 Leslie Fiedler essay, “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey,” which reads the novel’s man-boy relationship as homo-erotic. I love the graphic novel version, the children’s versions, and the likely forthcoming mash-upHuck Finn and The Zombies. Censorship is a hard accusation to make when earlier texts cannot easily be expunged and new texts emerge through fan fiction. What’s true of this most recent revision is that it does what all do: continue the discussion. I never expected to revisit Huck Finn in my professional career, but this long post (and the hundreds of others generated by Gribben’s work) is evidence that Huck Finn is a classic worthy of 21st century discussion because we’re still doing it.
And so we reach the final paradox: By altering Huck Finn in his effort to save parts of it for teaching, Gribben has added value to the the original. I’m certain that what I teach of the novel in my next lesson plan will not be all of Twain’s idea, but that never matters in art. Jim is a drifting icon who reflects our cultural currents. His transformations on our literary raft are too important—and too much fun—to ignore.