Wednesday, January 5, 2011

If we do it to plays and movies, why not books? Thoughts on the re-edited Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

It's a touchy subject, and it may even be a very slippery slope. But on the surface, the decision by New South to release a new edition of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn without its 219 utterances of the word 'nigger' shouldn't be that shocking. We constantly alter our movies and plays for different audiences. Any high school who has put on Grease over the last thirty years has dealt with how to get around "Greased Lightning", with its references to creaming chicks and pussy-wagons (Christopher Walken had a witty skit based around just this issue on his last Saturday Night Live hosting gig in April 2008). We have no objection to countless movies being edited for television or edited for airplane viewing. The key concept is that no matter what is done to a film or a play for whatever reason, the original film and the play in its original form, remains available for mass consumption. We have always treated books as a somewhat holier art form than the performing arts, but what New South is doing is no different than watching Blazing Saddles on network television.

And for what it's worth, I have championed filmmakers like Morgan Sperlock, who cut a slightly less-profane version of his Super Size Me, which allowed the documentary to be shown in schools as an educational tool. And I specifically chastised Michael Moore for allowing Capitalism: A Love Story to snag an R-rating based purely on three gratuitous uses of the word 'fuck'. Say what you will about the film, and the likelihood that political lightning rod Michael Moore could be used as an apolitical teaching tool, but the film would theoretically serve as an educational viewing experience, and that was certainly worth cutting two of the offending profanities, just as it would have been for The Tillman Story late last year. Yes, we're dealing with a secondary publisher altering the words of a long-dead author, but the intent would be the same. Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a pioneering novel and a genuine abolitionist screed in the guise of an adventure story. If cutting the 'n-word' from a particular version of the novel and replacing it with 'slave', even if said slur is used to highlight the racism of the era, is a way to allow even more young impressionable minds to learn the lessons contained therein without controversy or public outcry, then perhaps it is a pill worth swallowing.

Allowing an edited version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to exist will not harm the original novel in any way, just as having various abridged or more-kid friendly editions of various classic books does not impair your ability to purchase an unedited version. The unaltered text will remain openly available for purchase and library checkout. I bemoan those who cannot separate the offending racial slur from the anti-racism narrative in which it is used, but the ability to deal with context is something that has been largely lost over the years in popular culture. Perhaps it is a trick along the lines of painting Tom Sawyer's fence for him, a slyly subversive way to allow the book to be read by even more students. But even if it is merely a concession to sensitivity or political correctness, it's no different than the compromise we make every day in film and stage. It is no victory, but time will tell whether or not it was a defeat.

Scott Mendelson


RP said...

I'm an English teacher about to start teaching this novel, so I've been following this controversy closely. Thanks for your input...though I'll probably end up teaching the unedited version, I appreciate the need for a censored version, too.

Jihad Punk 77 said...

How can African-American, or really, ANY students be expected to read the un-altered version and not feel offended? I'm not black (I am Indian) and I always wince at every mention of the N word and will not be able to enjoy reading Huckleberry Finn (and I HAVE read this book before in high school).

as a woman of color who enjoys reading, I'm less likely to enjoy reading a book that keeps containing the N word over and over or contains racist words that target any minority group because I know what it's like to be a minority person.

I'm happy they are cutting the N word out of this book so that students of all races, especially African Americans, may be able to read this novel and discuss it in a historical context, without feeling offended or dismissing Mark Twain as a racist novelist.


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