Copyright © by William Glass, 1/11/11
The upcoming NewSouth version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
will excise controversial language, specifically replacing the word nigger
with slave. And the furor over this news has cast Mark Twain's
work, which raised the collective blood pressure even in his day, back into the
center of the public buzz, revealing that the United States still stumbles over
history and has not yet found a way to deal soberly with what it has done and
been. Indeed, movie critic Roger Ebert has dramatized this unresolved
tension in recent days--reacting initially against the edition and later
retracting his comments. As a southern, white Christian, lifelong student
of history, and man of letters, I have not been surprised by the indigestion
revealed in Ebert's comments and their aftermath. I must confess that,
much like Ebert, I am not likely to be called either nigger or slave
in my lifetime. I am therefore completely unaware of the pain this causes
in those who hear it. It is common these days to pretend that race is no
longer sensitive business. But I cannot act as if I haven't received
certain privileges wholly on the basis of my race. That is quite simply
how it is, and pretending otherwise actually would disqualify whatever I might
say about this issue a priori. I hope, having admitted this, I can
offer my voice honestly in a conversation that must happen if we are not to be
controlled by a past we cannot change and cannot, thus far, reconcile.
About all this, therefore, I posit the following: contemporary American
culture, obsessed as it is by political correctness, has actually dispossessed
itself of the tools it might use to effectively process its history and make
Ironically, the processing of difference is exactly the theme of Huck Finn that will be destroyed by the edition soon to be released in February. Huck Finn is as unpretentious as he is memorable, and probably his most defining trait is an openness to the education of experience, coupled with a distrust of theory as a means of knowledge. His disinterest in either school or religion comes in favor of a hands-on practicality that makes him far more malleable than most of his readers would wish him. Critics, much like Huck's own aunt, have wanted to civilize Huck, to force him to be an emblem of something; to stand still and bear the meaning they themselves would ascribe to him. Huck, as both character and novel, resists pigeonholing; as with the river he rambles, one never steps into the same Huck twice. But this new edition will rob Huck of the stakes of change. Indeed, it is hard not to see how the book will not merely appear ridiculous if published as NewSouth plans to do.
Ridiculous!--Take the famous King and Duke fraud in chapter 24, for example. Huck's disgust at the way the King and Duke pretend to be brothers of the dead Peter Wilks would be totally meaningless if written thus:
Well, if I ever struck anything like it, I'm a slave. It was enough to make a body ashamed of the human race.
The word "slave" is utterly meaningless in that context, even as a veiled insult. The sentence after it makes reference to the human race, written in contrast with the original's nigger. Thus, the one and the other are put on opposite poles of reality. Twain does it masterly--Huck's unconscious formulation of these poles reveals that these categories are beneath his conscious organizing of the world. They are self-evident to him, and they must be. The word nigger places an entire race of people, regardless of status, into one docket. The word "slave," denoting an institution (and excluding freed blacks) would be less painful, only because it would have no meaning. But stripping Huck's implicit racism away from him lobotomizes the entire relationship he develops with Jim. And then what is to be made of Huck's summation of Jim:
I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks does for their'n.
If race is not allowed its full divisive power in this story, this
statement is robbed of all its force. And Huck is robbed of his goodness;
and the story of its polemic; and history of its educative potential; and
humanity of its....
It is a credit to Twain that Huck never ceases to be of his own time. From beginning to end, he never stops either saying nigger or making racially-based assumptions. The categories that exist in his subconscious remain that way, even as his conscious mind begins to process new data. This is the crucial interpretive fact of the story. The categories by which humans understand the world are formulated based on enormous amounts of information digested before it is even articulable. The process of unlearning that information is a lifelong endeavor, requiring nearly innumerable conscious admissions like that of Huck in the quote about Jim's caring for his own people. That Twain respects the almost unbearable slowness of the process is part of why Huck Finn is an immortal novel and Remember the Titans is an already-forgotten piece of kitsch cinema.
The ironic turnabout of this is that Huck, refusing to stand still, endures forever as a character even so. The vividness of the currents of opinion concerning the NewSouth release testify to this. Huck is still speaking, and his words still cut the veins of the culture, whether we like it or not. His insistence on being his own man, on adapting to his experience, on fluidity, means that he faces every era the same. His timelessness is absolutely a product of his profound rootedness in his own culture. And the ways he adapts are robbed of their power to address and teach, let alone to entertain, if we divorce him from his world.
The intent of those who have aimed to release the book this way is not despicable in the least--they are merely advocating for a book whose language has kept it out of schools. But if this is what needs to happen for Huck to get in, it is better to keep the book out. Huck himself would agree, given the indigestion he caused his own teachers. And the dirty secret is that despite his refusal of them, Huck learns. His education leaves us with a word on its way to redemption. Huck never stops calling Jim nigger; rather, the word changes its meaning. And it is this change that the politically correct elimination of difference prevents from ever happening. It is by facing the past that we move beyond it: by letting our experience teach us, redefine us, and become part of us. The healing of human trauma consists not of changing what the past is, but what it means, and we cannot learn from what is not acknowledged. If that seems unbearable, it is likely because a secular culture has grown unaccustomed to confession. Experience will teach that it is confession (read acknowledgment) that heals the wounds we have inflicted, but a culture obsessed with pretending it is healthy stands in great need of someone to open the wound occasionally. And dulling the sharp edges of the past will do nothing to help with the wounds they have already caused. The removal of differences prevents all possibility of change, and no growth will come of denial. A sterilized Huckleberry learns nothing and teaches nothing, a perfect emblem of those who would rob him of maybe his most important word.
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