Thursday, 6 January 2011

The Huck Finn N-word row - the view from London

The motive of Mark Twain scholar Professor Alan Gribben in changing 219 uses of the word ‘nigger’ to that of ‘slave’ in a new edition of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has become obscured in the outcry sparked by news of his misplaced good intentions. But it deserves examination.
Gribben, a dedicated promoter of the American classic, had found the offensive racial epithet a barrier to the book’s continuing appreciation even though Twain had sought to satirise racial bigotry in the 19th century South. Opposition to the repeated instances of the N-word has seen the book banned in school libraries.
But Twain was a fierce advocate of the precision of words. Gribben should know having gone to such pains to duplicate the vernacular of the people along the Mississippi River around 1840, the author of Huckleberry Finn wouldn’t take kindly to censorship by an academic more than a century later.
The fault is in teaching of the book not the classic itself. You can’t hope to change society by denying its nastier dimensions.
But for the furore, Gribben’s pruning of the N-word might have seen moves to tidy up Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Color Purple. And why stop there?
In the UK we have a basketful of vile racial slurs – some we share with the world; others of our own invention. The law is a clumsy and inefficient guardian against racial insults but it does have its uses. Political correctness is often mocked but whatever people say to family and friends, they are now cautious about airing their prejudices in public.
Real change must begin in the schools. But to know where we’re headed, we need to know where we’ve come from – and there is no room for tinkering with the classics of literature however well meant.

1 comment:

  1. Ok. GC. But Jaffa notes that in Pakistan a liberal Moslem MP dies for trying to defend a Christian woman from [apparently] blaspheming the 'Prophet' and in the USA another liberal politician dies just for trying to make a speech to her constituents. Would one get away with using the 'n' word by claiming one was using it like Mark Twain?

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What do you think? GC