Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Censoring Mark Twain

In another in a long string of absurd decisions based on political correctness and modern sensibilities, one publisher has decided that Mark Twain must be censored if it is to make any money placing copies of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in public schools.  Yes, the dreaded "N" word is sprinkled throughout the book and, yes, it is offensive to modern ears.  But taken in its context the use of that word in Huckleberry Finn adds depth and impact to what Twain was trying to portray about the people and the times.

NewSouth Books, an Alabama publisher explains itself this way:
NewSouth has been bombarded with emails and phone calls questioning the value of sanitising a classic work of 19th century literature for the sake of modern sensibilities.

But spokeswoman Suzanne La Rosa says the censorship allows the book to be read in schools, where it was becoming shunned.
Ms La Rosa says she understands the argument that the novel is social history as well as literature, but says censored text is not meant to replace the original.

"There are literally scores of editions of these Twain books out there on the marketplace for people who really place adherence to Twain's original text on the top of their priority lists," she said.

"We simply felt that there was room in the marketplace for a book that was a gentler read.

"This is hardly going to make a difference, really a ripple, even, in terms of what is available
A "gentler read" or a dumbed-down, neutered read? You decide.

Before you do decide, take a look what literary historian, and fellow blogger, D.G. Myers has to say on the subject over at A Commonplace Blog. Here is a taste of what Mr. Myers adds to the conversation:
So much for Twain’s irony. “I’m hoping that people will welcome this new option,” Gribben says, “but I suspect that textual purists will be horrified.”

Not only textual purists. What is far more horrifying to contemplate is how anyone who studies the novel in “the new classroom,” where Gribben says the author’s intended version is “really not acceptable,” can possibly hope to understand Huckleberry Finn. Twain’s point in the novel is that human “sivilization” (including the institution of slavery) is little more than legalized violence. The only true freedom lies outside “sivilization” altogether, which is why, in the last sentences of the book, Huck decides to “light out for the [Indian] Territory ahead of the rest”—that is, decides to flee human contact altogether.
Go here for the whole article I quote from and to a second, related one:

Hemingway Is Next

More Books to Gribbenize    - in which Myers has fun sanitizing a paragraph from Moby Dick

As for me, I smell a rat - and that rat is money.  This new simpleton's version of Huck Finn is going to be sold to schools at $25 a pop when the real version can be found at bookstores in quality paperback format for about $7 - and downloaded free of charge at more than a dozen websites.

Just when I think I've seen it all...(famous last words).


  1. "There are literally scores of editions of these Twain books out there on the marketplace for people who really place adherence to Twain's original text on the top of their priority lists"

    What kind of school are these, that will be having their students read these censored texts? When I read something in my English classes (not so very long ago, as I was reminded today), I was expected to critique the works we read, or at least as questions about the content, referring always to the texts themselves. The students reading this edition will never be referring to the original text and probably will have no way of knowing exactly where the text was changed unless they go the extra mile and hunt down one of those uncensored editions (and don't have those uncensored editions snatched away by their horrified parents).

    This reminds me of the book Remake by Connie Willis, in which the main character's job is to go through old movies and censor any objectionable content (similar to what 4Kids did in real life with anime - things like replacing a cigarette with a lollypop). And wasn't there a company that used to sell movies after first removing objectionable content (making them "family safe")? Only now it's moved on to books...

  2. I hate to say this, but there are some people who should have nothing at all to do with books.

    This post has decided me...I'm going to read Huck Finn this year.

  3. Great points, library girl. Even replacing "nigger" with "slave," if that is all that is done, is too much and dilutes the book more than most people would care to see it happen. What happened to treating high school students as the young adults they are...they are mature enough to understand the context of the times in which this book was written.

    Have you seen the famous picture of Churchill (the one we've all seen dozens of times) in which his signature cigar was airbrushed out of the picture. Can't have those kids yearning for a good cigar can we...they have other things on their minds. :-)

  4. Absolutely correct, Susan...and what a great "protest book" Huck Finn makes. :-)

  5. Love the cartoon! I agree it is for the money. Young adults should be exposed to all of history...not just the pretty parts. Everybody hold on to your current editions of Huck Finn...they will likely be worth lots of money one day!

  6. You may find this interesting: "Take it from the old stage manager"

    It's a reposted article from 1984 about another "less offensive" edition of Huck Finn.

  7. I agree, Lisa.

    Political correctness is an embarrassment to this country and does way more harm than good.

  8. Thanks for that, library girl...interesting take on the situation. Everything old becomes new again. This kind of dimwitted thinking has apparently been around a lot longer than I realized.

  9. Here is a good article in the Atlantic

  10. MMMM I must read Huck Fin again; it has been a long time. I feel that to change this particular word robs the intent of the language. But then we can't have those school kids thinking to hard.

  11. I think it is so ridiculous for them to sanitize Huck Finn. The beauty of literature is that it can tell us so much about the time it was written. I really find the whole thing absurd and would never want my teenage son to read a sanitized version of the book. Luckily he has already read the original. It is insulting to think that readers can't handle the original language.

  12. Life is really tough for today's kids, blondcat...trying to stay politically correct at all times has to be very nerve-wracking. :-)

  13. Twain used that word for a specific reason, too, show that even the most "decent" characters in the story did not see slaves as humans. Removing that word distorts and weakens the whole premise of the book.