Dispatches | January 06, 2011

By now, you have probably heard that even dudes that have been dead for 100 years and have a new hit collection of musings gets, yup, censored.  With the aid of Twain scholar Dr. Alan Gribben of Auburn University, NewSouth books is set to release an updated version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with the offensive racial slurs “nigger” and “injun” scrubbed out of the text.

The response has been about what you would expect from people who find censorship, cultural revisionism, and political correctness cloaked in the idea of “compassionate advocacy” to be both dangerous and incredibly stupid.  For me, the goodie is from Ishmael Reed:

Instead of doing a gotcha search on Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn,” I recommend that its critics read it. They will find that Twain’s Jim has more depth than the parade of black male characters that one finds in recent movies, theater and literature, who are little more than lethal props.

The response to this decision by NewSouth has been overwhelmingly negative, but that doesn’t necessarily mean this edition won’t still be released and snatched up by schools.  Both NewSouth and Gribben have little to say on the commercial viability of this project, so who knows what kind of audience there might be for this edition.

Most of the discussion has focused on the lack of good teaching and/or the intelligence of children.  But what else does this suggest about how we now view our art and literature?  Something about our cultural response to the Twain controversy has also struck me as a little … well, ideoglogical.

With no context at all, you probably are against “censorship” and “political correctness.”  But you probably don’t think much about what the words really mean: you’re against them because they have negative connotations.  They just sorta make you instantly think negative thoughts, maybe some freedom of speech and expression stuff.  A scholar like Brennan, who clearly should know better, has thrown all his weight on one word, without any sense of its context.  It’s almost like he never read Huck Finn.  In fact, his justification seems to be entirely because he finds saying these words aloud makes him uncomfortable.

Words matter. Any writer knows that. And yet, words also have no power. Think about it. The word “google” was meaningless twenty years ago – we didn’t “google” anybody until there was a company and a search engine and a common usage to make that word a verb, which has probably annoyed more than a few lexicographers.  Words cannot literally hurt you: you cannot walk down the street and have words crash on your head (like birds in Arkansas) or have someone stab you in the chest with a word. Words gain their meaning and their emotional impact from the cultural context that we create for them. To view Twain’s language as the same as our own 21st century language is foolish.  It seems such a gross misunderstanding of how to approach art, history, and literature that I’m mildly amazed this idea even made it through a single NewSouth editorial meeting.

By trying to removed two offensive words, Brennan is actually giving those words more power.  It’s also giving them power in their 21st century context.  Trying to redact and censor only makes the offensive words stronger, more seductive, more (oddly) offensive.  How does Brennan and NewSouth not see that?  We would laugh if someone tried to cover a nude statue with a fig leaf or hold a sheet of paper over an exposed breast in a Renaissance painting.

Only this isn’t funny.  This whitewashing of our books doesn’t, apparently, even need to be done on the sly, like it was with Amazon and Orwell’s 1984 just a few months ago. To be fair, the reporting indicates this was a question of copyright rather than content.  I am making a bit of a leap here, and I acknowledge that.  However, in an increasingly digital world, if people truly believe we do not ban artwork but we can simply revise it, shape and change the content, and truly believe this innocuous and decent and will do so openly, we should be very, very frightened.

Would it do any good to tell NewSouth we don’t want sanitized Twain?  If so, here’s the contact page: let ’em know.

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review.