Thursday, January 6, 2011

Mark Twain and Censoring the "N-Word"

As many are already aware NewSouth, a Montgomery, Alabama based publisher, is releasing a new edition of Mark Tawin's Huckleberry Finn in which the "n-word" has been replaced with the less racially charged term, "slave." The NewSouth edition features an introduction by Auburn University professor, Alan Gribben:

Gribben became determined to offer an alternative for grade school classrooms and "general readers" that would allow them to appreciate and enjoy all the book has to offer. "For a single word to form a barrier, it seems such an unnecessary state of affairs," he said.

Gribben has no illusions about the new edition's potential for controversy. "I'm hoping that people will welcome this new option, but I suspect that textual purists will be horrified," he said. "Already, one professor told me that he is very disappointed that I was involved in this." Indeed, Twain scholar Thomas Wortham, at UCLA, compared Gribben to Thomas Bowdler (who published expurgated versions of Shakespeare for family reading), telling PW that "a book like Professor Gribben has imagined doesn't challenge children [and their teachers] to ask, ‘Why would a child like Huck use such reprehensible language?' "
Is this really about the offensiveness of the "n-word" or is this about making white southerners less squeamish about their history? (I do not have an answer, but having grown up south of the Mason-Dixon Line, I am very familiar with the disingenuous claims some southerners make about the causes of the Civil War.)

The whole point of Twain's use of the "n-word" was to portray how racism corrupted every element of southern life: even the likable protagonist and narrator, Huck, who befriends a runaway slave, uses the word. It is integral to the novel. People should be horrified by the racism of 19th century America. Hiding its ugliness hides both how far America has come as a nation, as well as hiding the ugliness of those who wish to pull America back to its past.

How does this refusal to look squarely at the role the word had in America's racist history make sense in an era where the "n-word" is so prevalent in pop-culture?

I am not an African-American. I do not have a visceral relationship with the "n-word." My opposition to censoring it, however, is no mere exercise in academic libertarianism. I am a Jew, and I am very conscious that there there is a large body of works important works in literature, theology, philosophy, history, and drama in which some of the most libelous things are said about my people. Keeping these texts available, and teaching them in context is how we grasp just how deep-seated and widespread antisemitism really is in western civilization. For instance, no matter how often nice liberal do-gooders try to pretend that Shakespeare had liberal attitudes towards Jews, we need to confront just how many times his heroes compare Shylock to the Devil (which I have lampooned in my own Arlecchino Am Ravenous):

The devil [Shylock] can cite Scripture for his purpose,-
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
a goodly apple rotten at the heart."
(Merchant of VeniceAct I, Scene iii 93-97)


...I should stay with the Jew my master, who (God bless the mark) is a kind of devil; and to run away from the Jew I should be ruled by the fiend, who (saving your reverence) is the devil himself: certainly the Jew is the very devil incarnation...
(Act II, Scene ii 22-26)


Here comes another of the tribe,-- a third cannot be match'd, unless the devil himself turn Jew.
((Act III, Scene i 70-71)


Of course, this is not the complete listing of anti-Semitic slurs in The Merchant of Venice. I don't want these slurs censored. In fact, I want them taught in their full ugliness. This talk of the devil is not a mere figure of speech. In late 16th century, Christians were taught in folklore, popular literature, songs, and sermons to associate Jews with the devil, Judaism with Satan worship, and Jewish messianic hopes with the imminent coming of the Antichrist (see Joshua Trachtenberg's The Devil And the Jews: The Medieval Conception of the Jew and Its Relation to Modern Anti-Semitism.) This was the audience to whom Shakespeare was catering.

To engage in further self-promotion, there's a passage in my own play, Total War in which two of the characters discuss this very whitewashing of history, and how it destroys the present context, and in this case, enable a fictitious Holocaust denier named Hadley:

JONAH: The standard western civilization textbook credits the Jews for monotheism, The Bible, rejecting Jesus, and being murdered by the Nazis nineteen centuries later.

ANDREA: But you’re sort of a minority in western civilization.

JONAH: What you call the Holocaust—the Shoah—is the culmination of that civilization, and yet every page that could have offered context has been torn out: leaving the genocide incomprehensible. Imagine each of Shakespeare’s plays with Acts II, III, and IV excised. Nineteen centuries ripped from the textbook. That Western civilization denies responsibility makes Hadley’s mission all the easier.


We should not pretend that Shakespeare's attitudes towards Jews were liberal, nor should we pretend that in the era that Mark Twain wrote about was a time where southern whites had liberal ideas about the skin-color of the people they enslaved. Twain understood the viciousness of the word and wanted to portray it and the society it represented. Wortham is correct to ask: ‘Why would a child like Huck use such reprehensible language?' but how can we ask that reading a bowdlerized edition?

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