The Great American Novel Project: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

December 12, 2011 § 2 Comments

“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.” – Mark Twain

When I first started this project, Huck Finn was in the news for reasons you wouldn’t expect: publishers had put out a new copy of the book where all of Twain’s usage of the n-word was replaced by the word “slave.” It reminded me of a 1955 movie made out of the book, where producers, hoping to avoid offense, omitted any references to slavery and turned Jim into a white man. To a modern audience, the problems with that approach are obvious, but apparently the word-replacement approach–just a less egregious version of the same thing–was less overtly troubling, because this isn’t the first time it’s been tried.

Maybe it’s because I’m a writer–temperamental about my words, protective of them–that the whole thing sets me off. To a serious writer, the difference between one word and another is big. If Twain used the n-word, that’s because he meant to use the n-word. If he meant “slave,” he would have written “slave.” Don’t think it’s happenstance: Twain used the n-word repeatedly on purpose. He used it to make a statement about the society Huck Finn takes place in, that it’s so racist that even the characters we’re supposed to like use it over and over without regret, right up through the last chapter. Even minor changes to the text of the story can affect the author’s intention, and in the case of Huck Finn, those “minor changes,” the alteration of one word, seriously alter Twain’s intent: it makes Huck less ambiguous than he’s supposed to be, putting more emphasis on the “high-spirited scamp” side of his personality and less on the “product of his society (even though he would claim otherwise)” side. (It also shows that Jim is either patient or oppressed enough to put up with it, both significant aspects of the book.) The fact that Huck considers himself a loner, Dottie, a rebel is a major focus of the book; by changing the n-word to “slave” we significantly undermine the idea that this isn’t strictly true. At the end of the book, Huck claims that he’s planning on heading out west to rid himself of the burden of polite society, but since the ambiguous nature of his character has already been made clear, we can imagine that his future will end up quite a bit differently than he does. By changing just one of Twain’s words to something less offensive, we also change our conception of the book’s setting and characters. It’s not just a minor change.

Yes, Adventures of Huck Finn is a problematic book. Maybe as times change, we should examine the role it plays it the classroom–as a “classic” example of an anti-racist text–and look at other options that could fulfill similar functions. Frederick Douglass, Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. DuBois, Ralph Ellison, August Wilson and Toni Morrison can cover similar ground and allow black writers to speak for themselves rather than relying on a white author to interpret for them. Maybe because of Huck Finn‘s complexities and controversy and capability to offend, it’s a book that should wait until college, where lit courses are largely optional and everyone in the class is there by choice. And certainly we should think about the way teachers present the novel, how their use of (or their allowing their students to use) the n-word in class can implicitly condone the same prejudices that Twain was hoping we’d react against. But changing an author’s words–their story, their intent–and wiping away a tiny chunk of history is never an acceptable option.

Previously: Moby-Dick

Next: The Great Gatsby

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