Friday, January 7, 2011

Much Ado About Huck Finn

A whole lot of fuss is being made about a new edition of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn that omits certain offensive words. While I don't think this is censorship - that's government's job and, besides, a regular edition is easily available. And since the copyright on the book has long expired and it's now in the public domain, I'm not opposed to publisher's making an honest dime for their efforts. I still don't think it's a good idea.

Huckleberry Finn was written to make the reader uncomfortable. Underlying a story seemingly intended for the youth market is the story of how a boy comes to view his friend, Jim, a runaway slave. Finn attains enlightenment; it's wrong for a free person to own another person. In short, as any high-school teacher or college professor will tell you, Huckleberry Finn is the story of America itself. Bowdlerizing the language is an insult, not a good-intentioned effort to spare someone's feelings.

This kind of thing isn't anything new. Here's Ray Bradbury in his Coda to his prescient Fahrenheit 451:
About two years ago, a letter arrived from a solemn young Vassar lady telling me how much she enjoyed reading my experiment in space mythology, The Martian Chronicles.

But, she added, wouldn’t it be a good idea, this late in time, to rewrite the book inserting more women’s characters and roles?

A few years before that I got a certain amount of mail concerning the same Martian book complaining that the blacks in the book were Uncle Toms and why didn’t I “do them over”?

Along about then came a note from a Southern white suggesting that I was prejudiced in favor of the blacks and the entire store should be dropped.

Two weeks ago my mount of mail delivered forth a pip-squeak mouse of a letter from a well-known publishing house that wanted to reprint my story “The Fog Horn” in a high school reader.

In my story, I had described a lighthouse as having, late at night, an illumination coming from it that was a “God-Light.” Looking up at it from the viewpoint of any sea-creature one would have felt that one was in “the Presence.”

The editors had deleted “God-Light” and “in the Presence. . .”

. . . There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist / Unitarian, Irish / Italian / Octogenarian / Zen Buddhist, Zionist / Seventh-day Adventist, Women’s Lib / Republican, Mattachine / FourSquareGospel feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blanc-mange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme.

(While I'm quoting Bradbury, and since you've come this far, I might as well quote my favorite part of his Coda. It's relevant to this issue, too:
In sum, do not insult me with the beheadings, finger-choppings or the lung-deflations you plan for my works. I need my head to shake or nod, my hand to wave or make into a fist, my lungs to shout or whisper with. I will not go gently onto a shelf, degutted, to become a non-book.

All you umpires, back to the bleachers. Referees, hit the showers. It’s my game. I pitch, I hit, I catch. I run the bases. At sunset I’ve won or lost. At sunrise, I’m going out again, giving it the old try.

And no one can help me. Not even you.)

Hemingway says all American literature stems from Huckleberry Finn and he's right. Leave the offensive language alone. Don't worry. We're readers. We can take it.

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