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Quick announcement: Hey, guess who’s going to be Guest of Honor at Constellation in Nebraska this April!

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Publishers Weekly recently reported on NewSouth, a small publisher which will be releasing a new edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in which all uses of the word “nigger” and “injun” have been changed.  It’s not the first time this sort of thing has happened.  John Wallace released a similarly “cleansed” edition of Huck Finn two decades ago.

There’s a lot to unpack here.  Twain scholar Dr. Alan Gribben, who edited the NewSouth edition, lays out his rationale in the introduction (available online):

Far more controversial than this reuniting of Twain’s boy books will be the editor’s decision to eliminate two racial slurs that have increasingly formed a barrier to these works for teachers, students, and general readers. The editor thus hopes to introduce both books to a wider readership than they can currently enjoy.

In other words, he was worried because the books were already being banned from schools and elsewhere.  His primary goal isn’t necessarily to censor the book, but to circumvent banning by removing the primary point of contention.  He goes on to talk about his personal experiences reading the book, and the pain caused by the repeated and casual use of the word “nigger.”  (Side note: I’ve seen zero discussion of the word “injun” in this context, which bothers me.)

I sympathize with Gribben’s intentions.  And I think the discussion as to whether or not these stories are appropriate for the classroom is a good debate to have.  We can argue that the book provides an opportunity to have a painfully honest discussion about history and race and racism, but how many teachers are truly qualified to moderate such a discussion and make it a positive experience for all students?  I would trust very few of my high school English teachers to do a decent job.

That said, I don’t believe a “cleansed” edition of the book is the answer.  As an author, I don’t want someone else rewriting my books to make them more acceptable.  And Mark Twain isn’t just literature; he’s history.  I have strong misgivings about the way we revise history.  To learn from the past, we have to be willing to look at our flaws and failures, not erase them.

Gribben is passionate about Twain’s work.  My question for him is whether he believes the challenges to this book are appropriate.  If not, then why is he giving in to them?  If so — if schools are teaching these books to students who aren’t ready for them, or are presenting them in ways which are hurtful to students — then is the solution to present a bastardized edition of the text?

We don’t teach Ulysses to fifth graders because they’re not ready for it.  I don’t know exactly when students are ready to tackle the raw and painful racial issues in Twain, but I don’t believe glossing those issues over or pretending they don’t exist is the way to go.  There are so many wonderful, beautiful, powerful books out there … why is it so important that this one be pushed upon students before they’re ready?  Maybe this is a book better taught at the college level instead of high school or junior high.

As a writer, a parent, and a former teacher, I obviously have some strong feelings about all of this.  But like Gribben, I’m a white man up on my soap box about the use of “nigger” and “injun,” which is problematic for a number of reasons.  It’s easy for me to say we should keep those words in the book – neither I nor my family are the ones who’ve been hurt by them.  So if you’ve read this rather long post, then thank you … but please make sure my voice isn’t the only one you’re listening to.

Here are a few of the articles I read as I was trying to sort out my own thoughts and reaction:

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.

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Comments

( 102 comments — Leave a comment )
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matociquala
Jan. 6th, 2011 02:15 pm (UTC)
I was taught it as a junior in high school, by a uniformly excellent (and terrifying) teacher. That seems about right to me.
jimhines
Jan. 6th, 2011 02:21 pm (UTC)
I'm not saying it can't be taught well. On the other hand, I remember my 7th grade English teacher, and the idea of her teaching this book makes me quiver in fear.

Her idea of teaching Lord of the Flies was to make us find and list 10 similes, 10 metaphors, and 10 examples of personification from each chapter.

It was a very bad year.
(no subject) - matociquala - Jan. 6th, 2011 02:58 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Jan. 6th, 2011 03:39 pm (UTC) - Expand
la_marquise_de_
Jan. 6th, 2011 02:21 pm (UTC)
Congratulations on the GoH spot.
With my historian hat on, I would argue that the text should be left alone, with full notes provided by editors/teachers explaining the context and the consequences of that. Airbrushing the words might also airbrush the issues, and that seems to me to be potentially very harmful. But staff need also to be aware of and able to deal sensitively with the way that context still affects students, especially students of colour and provide time and space for them to explore their feelings and reactions safely and in a supportive environment.
jimhines
Jan. 6th, 2011 02:25 pm (UTC)
"...staff need also to be aware of and able to deal sensitively with the way that context still affects students, especially students of colour and provide time and space for them to explore their feelings and reactions safely and in a supportive environment."

This is the part that right now, I frankly just don't trust to be done well.

I definitely agree with you about not airbrushing the text. (And I really like "airbrushing" as a term for this!) But part of what prompted this post is that I'm seeing a lot of people getting really pissed off about the censoring/alteration/airbrushing of the text, and while I agree with most of what I'm reading, I don't want to ignore the fact that there are some valid questions and concerns about forcing kids to read the book, too.
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ - Jan. 6th, 2011 02:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
jimhines
Jan. 6th, 2011 03:40 pm (UTC)
That pretty much matches my gut-level sense of things.
jhetley
Jan. 6th, 2011 02:24 pm (UTC)
Changing the words is a way of denying that a nasty part of history existed. It also denies that words change meaning and effect over time. We can't retrofit either language or society.
jimhines
Jan. 6th, 2011 02:26 pm (UTC)
Tell that to the folks publishing history textbooks. Sigh.
(no subject) - jhetley - Jan. 6th, 2011 02:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ - Jan. 6th, 2011 02:41 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jhetley - Jan. 6th, 2011 02:44 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ - Jan. 6th, 2011 05:34 pm (UTC) - Expand
mtfay
Jan. 6th, 2011 02:33 pm (UTC)
I simply don't believe that Bowdlerization is ever the answer to problematic text. But, honestly, I believe it was an especially poor choice with Huck Finn, given that particular book's examination and rejection of racism. The Bowdlerization will take the sting out Twain's critique of racism and lessen the impact that I think Twain was going for.

Although, I have come to think that the book, which was written more for adults than children, probably isn't the best material for young people who aren't at least in high school. Nuance and textual subtlety is lost on so many of us as it is; it's even worse when one hasn't had several years parsing it.

But then again, I though The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was boring, too. So, I don't really have a problem with it not being taught until one reaches college. It should, however, probably be included in examinations of American Literature from that era, no matter what level they are teaching it at. It is one of the more important books by one of the more important authors of the time.

nipernaadiagain
Jan. 6th, 2011 02:43 pm (UTC)
Boring? How old were you?

For me it was kind of life changing. I was around 9 or 10 when I first read it. In translation, though.

Then again - the downside is that if caught by surprise I still catch myself in believing that this is how the contemporary USA is like.
(no subject) - barbarienne - Jan. 6th, 2011 02:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - nipernaadiagain - Jan. 6th, 2011 03:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
shsilver
Jan. 6th, 2011 02:35 pm (UTC)
From what I've read, the word Injun is also to be bowdlerized from this edition.

I was lucky enough to have teachers who knew how to teach the books (as well has having to look for similes, metaphors, etc.) when reading.

Of course, when we showed R. Blazing Saddles a couple of weeks ago, we prefaced it with a discussion of the "casual use of the word 'nigger.'" before we ran the film.

And when I wrote a story which made use of the term in an historically appropriate context, it felt very strange to incorporate it into the text.
jimhines
Jan. 6th, 2011 03:08 pm (UTC)
Yep. "Injun" is also being removed, though I haven't seen what it's being replaced with. I'm disappointed that I've found absolutely no discussion of that aspect.

I do think framing the discussion and giving students/kids/readers warning and context for what's about to be discussed is vital. And I still twinge when I use the word in a post like this, even when I believe it's an appropriate usage.
(no subject) - shsilver - Jan. 6th, 2011 03:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - serialbabbler - Jan. 6th, 2011 03:58 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - shsilver - Jan. 6th, 2011 04:12 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - serialbabbler - Jan. 6th, 2011 04:19 pm (UTC) - Expand
apis_mellifera
Jan. 6th, 2011 02:37 pm (UTC)
It's funny, I was talking about Huck Finn with some friends last week, before this announcement was made. And my position was that it was a book that needed to be taught carefully and in a way that acknowledges that the book is, in many ways, hurtful and that perhaps it was one that would be better taught at the college level than at the high school level.

Then again, my perspective is probably colored by the fact that we read Brave New World in my 10th grade English class and who the hell thinks a book with an orgy and casual drug use is appropriate for a bunch of 14 and 15 year olds?
matociquala
Jan. 6th, 2011 03:01 pm (UTC)
My high school drama club PERFORMED Brave New World. (It's also a play.)

14 and 15 year olds already know about orgies and casual drug use.
(no subject) - apis_mellifera - Jan. 6th, 2011 03:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - matociquala - Jan. 6th, 2011 03:11 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - apis_mellifera - Jan. 6th, 2011 03:14 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Jan. 6th, 2011 03:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - apis_mellifera - Jan. 6th, 2011 03:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - genarti - Jan. 6th, 2011 03:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - apis_mellifera - Jan. 6th, 2011 03:13 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - genarti - Jan. 6th, 2011 03:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - apis_mellifera - Jan. 6th, 2011 03:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - cissa - Jan. 8th, 2011 11:37 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - lady_fellshot - Jan. 6th, 2011 03:11 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - apis_mellifera - Jan. 6th, 2011 03:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
barbarienne
Jan. 6th, 2011 02:44 pm (UTC)
Maybe this is a book better taught at the college level instead of high school or junior high.

-->This was my first thought. But then again, it's possible my perception of kids today being more ignorant and overprotected than Generation X was is simply a side-effect of my age.


Here's my question: Who is asking for this book to be banned?

I can't shake the feeling that at least some of the requests come from racist assholes who object to the anti-racist message of the book, but are using the excuse of language they don't actually find objectionable to get the book banned. (Yeah, I'm all about the paranoid byzantine plots, thank you.)
jimhines
Jan. 6th, 2011 03:17 pm (UTC)
I don't think there's a simple answer. I suspect that some of the efforts to ban the book do come from people who prefer the "colorblind" approach, meaning "I don't like to see racism, so let's erase anything that might force me to confront it." But I've also read accounts of people who were badly hurt by the way it was taught.

The overprotective thought occurred to me as well, but that also trips back into me as a white man not being the one who's directly hurt by much of this, and who am I to tell a black or Native American parent that they're being overprotective, if that makes sense?
(no subject) - rarelylynne - Jan. 6th, 2011 03:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - barbarienne - Jan. 6th, 2011 04:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - barbarienne - Jan. 6th, 2011 04:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Jan. 6th, 2011 04:53 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - coaldustcanary - Jan. 6th, 2011 04:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - barbarienne - Jan. 6th, 2011 05:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
michaeldthomas
Jan. 6th, 2011 02:49 pm (UTC)
Congrats on the GoH gig. :-)
jimhines
Jan. 6th, 2011 03:09 pm (UTC)
Thanks!
tsubaki_ny
Jan. 6th, 2011 02:56 pm (UTC)
I think removing the "n-word" from a historical work of fiction is an excellent way to baby and infantilize modern readers, rendering them more susceptible to fun attempts by covert white supremacists to convince them that black people didn't (and still don't) really have it all that bad and slavery times were quite good for us in the grand scheme of things, really, much better than Africa would have been, doncha know, and anyway all that stuff was ever so long ago and we are all colorblind and postracial now, whyEVER won't those people stop complaining?

I am against the change to an extent I can't even express properly.

(Also, I was taught the book in college.)
jimhines
Jan. 6th, 2011 03:12 pm (UTC)
To me, it feels a lot like claims that we're colorblind now, or should at least behave that way ... which translates to permission to ignore all but the most blatant racism. In some ways, this strikes me as an attempt at retroactive colorblindness.
(no subject) - tsubaki_ny - Jan. 6th, 2011 03:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Jan. 6th, 2011 04:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tsubaki_ny - Jan. 6th, 2011 03:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
matthewsrotundo
Jan. 6th, 2011 03:15 pm (UTC)
Ooo . . . been years since I've been to Constellation. Looks like a return trip to Lincoln is in order.
jimhines
Jan. 6th, 2011 03:19 pm (UTC)
Cool! Make sure to wear a bird on your head so I'll recognize you!
cat_mcdougall
Jan. 6th, 2011 03:34 pm (UTC)
I was never taught Huck Finn/Tom Sawyer in high school. We instead focused on Poe, Dickens, Melville, and Shakespeare. And when we got to Twain, it was Connecticut Yankee, Prince and the Pauper and several of his essays (Concerning the Jews was one, I vaguely remember). We were encouraged to read Finn and Sawyer, but not required.

I hate the changing of history (You change the past, monkeys rule the future! /movie reference) and especially the uncomfortable parts. Guess what? We all have uncomfortable parts of our past. It's a part of 'growing up'. Forgetting them just makes sure they rear up and smack us around later.
cathschaffstump
Jan. 6th, 2011 03:56 pm (UTC)
*cracks knuckles*

I *have* taught Huck Finn in both high school and college. It's a valuable book for a wide variety of reasons. I think the college students appreciated it more deeply and got more out of it than the high schoolers, but the high schoolers got it.

One of the things teachers do that can help students especially with questionable books like this is scaffold the teaching of the book with historical context and talk about what happened to Twain when he wrote the book, as well as discuss the other extreme of censorship the book received because of its protagonist. Huck Finn was not an establishment book when it was written for a wide variety of reasons.

I find myself with mixed feelings about this version. There are students who choose to read Shakespeare in more modern translation, and I have more issue with that in some ways, because that changes the very nature of the words. A point I saw on the news last night is that many students aren't getting exposed to Huck Finn's epiphany about slavery at all because of the controversial language, and I find myself thinking that while the form of Huck Finn might change, the actual message doesn't when you shift the language. That seems to be the more important piece.

As to Tom Sawyer, it's a great adventure book, but it's not the important book that Huck Finn is. If your kid wants to read that book for fun, it might be a good thing to get the racial slurs out of it. I would never teach this book in lit class because it's not really lit.

Catherine
jimhines
Jan. 6th, 2011 07:11 pm (UTC)
I think that was one of Gribben's main concerns, that kids were missing out on the book altogether because of those specific words.

I'm definitely with you in that if you're going to teach a book like this (or any book, really), you need to also present context and prepare the students. I like the word scaffolding to describe it. Part of my issue is that I don't necessarily trust the teachers to do this, or to do it well.

"I find myself thinking that while the form of Huck Finn might change, the actual message doesn't when you shift the language."

I don't know that I agree with you on this one. A reading of the book today is already going to be very different from a reading when it was first published, simply because language has changed. But I think there's a lot more to the book than just a single, central message. Some of that will still be there -- most of it, even -- but not all.
(no subject) - cathschaffstump - Jan. 6th, 2011 07:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
serialbabbler
Jan. 6th, 2011 04:09 pm (UTC)
Heh. I was an English Major* in college. We never covered Huckelberry Finn in any class I took from elementary school on... I guess that's one way to avoid offending anybody.

*And I did part of a Masters degree in American Studies, no less.
sktait
Jan. 6th, 2011 05:00 pm (UTC)
My first reaction I twittered as:
"Winston Smith, report to the Ministry of Political Correctness. Huckleberry Finn is waiting. Whirling noise is Clemens turning in grave"

I'll have to think some more after reading these comments though.
(no subject) - valarltd - Jan. 6th, 2011 07:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - serialbabbler - Jan. 6th, 2011 07:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - valarltd - Jan. 6th, 2011 08:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - serialbabbler - Jan. 6th, 2011 09:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
scarlettina
Jan. 6th, 2011 04:28 pm (UTC)
I had an e-mail exchange with a friend back east who is reading the book to his 10-year-old autistic son. He told me he was removing those words from the reading because he didn't want his kid randomly parroting words he didn't understand, and he didn't think his son would understand the nuanced discussion required in order for him to read the words as written. There wasn't much I could say to him. On the one hand, I understand his thinking (young protagonist = YA title ::sigh::). On the other, I would question if this is the right age and the right kid for this book.
jimhines
Jan. 6th, 2011 07:05 pm (UTC)
I'd love to know why he made the choice to read this book to his child at this particular age. Was there something specific he wanted his son to get from the book, or was it one of those things he did because, well, kids are just supposed to read Huck Finn, darn it!
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