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Posted at 1:00 PM ET, 01/11/2011

Ravitch: The chutzpah of rewriting Mark Twain (and how it relates to "The Wire")

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by education historian Diane Ravitch on her Bridging Differences blog, which she co-authors with Deborah Meier on the Education Week website. Ravitch and Meier exchange letters about what matters most in education. Ravitch, a research professor at New York University, is the author of the bestselling “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” an important critique of the flaws in the modern school reform movement.

Dear Deborah,
Words can wound, words can heal, words can inflame. Given the Constitution's First Amendment, we invariably support maximum freedom of expression, knowing that we are often extending protection to words we hate.

The latest effort to cleanse literature of a hurtful word is by now well known. NewSouth, an Alabama publisher, intends to publish a sanitized version of Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," replacing the "n-word" with the word "slave."

The Twain scholar Alan Gribben of Auburn University oversaw the change and believes that it will make the book less hurtful and less controversial than the original wording. As Professor Gribben surely knows, this book has been altered and censored innumerable times since it was first published in 1885. Over the past century-plus, many others have changed the n-word to "slave" or "servant" or "hand."

Bear in mind that this book is not just any old book in the school curriculum. This is the book about which Ernest Hemingway wrote: "...all modern literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn." One assumes with certainty that Hemingway referred to the book as it was written, not to an expurgated version.

Efforts to remove offensive words from books, plays, even poems, have a long history. In a 2003 book called The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn, I traced that history—and the ridiculous extremes to which it has been taken.

When I was on the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the federal testing program, I discovered that education publishers maintain lengthy lists of words, phrases, topics, and images that are banned from tests, textbooks, and other publications, for fear that someone might take offense.

Education publishers and state agencies routinely excise language and topics that might offend almost every imaginable group—whether defined by race, ethnicity, religion, gender, age, or disability.

In my research, I discovered that publishers and state agencies were sanitizing the language of John Steinbeck, William Shakespeare, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Elie Wiesel, Carson McCullers, Herman Melville, and other well-known writers. One of my favorite examples of absurd revision appeared on a New York State Regents' exam, where a famous line in Matthew Arnold's poem "Dover Beach" was changed from "Ah, love, let us be true to one another!" to "Ah, friend, let us be true to one another!"

I understand that many people, especially African-Americans, are offended by the n-word. I, too, find it offensive. But I am even more offended by the prospect that Mark Twain's classic work will be expurgated, rewritten by someone who wants to shield readers from the book's original language. How did we become such delicate creatures that we cannot dare to read a word that might discomfit us?

A friend recently urged me to order the HBO program "The Wire" from Netflix. This is a five-year series about the Baltimore Police Department, the drug trade, violence, corruption, and the ills of modern urban life. I have long abhorred movies and television programs that are violent and that contain X-rated language. I initially avoided "The Sopranos" because the vulgar language repelled me. But time has desensitized me. Now I ignore the nudity, crudity, and vulgarity, and just follow the story. Truth be told, I am fascinated by the characters and their stories and can't wait for the next installment to arrive (I am near the end of Season Three).

I thought about "The Wire" in context of the controversy over Huckleberry Finn for this reason. The n-word is used constantly. So is the f-word. Take away those two words and half the script would disappear. Black gangsters use the n-word freely to describe one another; so do the cops. To my knowledge, no one has protested to HBO or the producers. This is popular culture, so who cares?

This is a strange juxtaposition: Our schools are cleansed of all that is troubling, offensive, and challenging, while our popular culture deals bluntly, graphically, and harshly with the ugliest realities of our time. I would not want our schools to include all the vulgarity and obscenity that is commonplace in the popular culture. Indeed, I wish that our schools would elevate the popular culture and give young people a taste for something finer than what they see on television and in the movies. In my dreams, the schools would teach the best that has been known and said in the world.

They cannot do that by bowdlerizing classic literature, by pretending that bad things never happened and that we live in a cotton-candy world. Bad things have happened. Slavery was a shameful reality. So was (and is) bigotry and hatred. Schools must teach young people to read history, warts and all, and to analyze great works of literature, even when they contain words and images that offend them. They cannot develop their thinking skills if they never encounter dilemmas worthy of debate and discussion and critical thought.

I don't understand how anyone can put himself or herself in a position to rewrite the words of a classic. What chutzpah! I say, if you think you can do better than Twain or Shakespeare, write your own damn novel or play.

Diane

-0-

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By Valerie Strauss  | January 11, 2011; 1:00 PM ET
Categories:  Diane Ravitch, Guest Bloggers, Literature  | Tags:  censorship, classic literature, diane ravitch, huck fin, huckleberry fin, the wire, william shakespeare, writing mark twain  
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Comments

Twain's work was more than literary in that it was also historical of the language and tone of the time. To rewrite it not diminishes the work, it rewrites history.

We have turned this table so many times. I guess David should now have clothes and other great works changed. Perhaps the Last Supper could be more formal with coat and tie!

Posted by: jbeeler | January 11, 2011 1:24 PM | Report abuse

My personal fav was when Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 was banned. Now that is the the height of hubristic hypocrisy from so-called do-gooders.

Posted by: DHume1 | January 11, 2011 1:36 PM | Report abuse

I'm sorry, did I miss something? The "N-word" is an unfortunate pagorative, created by semi-literate bigots to assert their aalleged cultural and moral superiority over those they had kidnapped exploited. It reflects more poorly on the creators and users than on the objects of the term. On the other hand "slave" is the name for the actual, inhuman condition occupied by by those that had been exploited. Tell me again why the former is more offensive than latter.

Of course, all this is lost in a town that reveres the denegrating name and symbols of a sports team whose name is the cultural equivelent of the "n-word."

Posted by: mcstowy | January 11, 2011 1:50 PM | Report abuse

The comparison to violent TV series is well taken. Millions more children will watch these shows and be influenced in whatever way than any of those who take the time to read Huckleberry Finn all the way through.

Some academics have nothing better to do than to try to control language in a book over which they think they have influence rather than take on the "popular" media which spirals lower every year. Is it their only chance at fame and notoriety?

Posted by: 1bnthrdntht | January 11, 2011 3:19 PM | Report abuse

This whole matter is due to the fact that many people believe The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a children's book. It is not. To fully appreciate this book a person would have to be old enough to grasp the many areas of sophistication in it, including the language. A child or adolescent might be confused and repelled, even hurt, by the n-word, whereas an adult would (or should) understand why the word is used.

This book is best left to the college level and above.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | January 11, 2011 6:52 PM | Report abuse

As one of two black students in my grade at a fine, Southern prep school some years ago, I still remember how much I hated Huckleberry Finn. While reading aloud, the other students in my English class loved to accentuate the N-word whenever it appeared. Chuckles and inevitable stares at me accompanied the entire unit. More importantly, I could never understand how the moral superiority of an adult black man over a fourteen-year-old white boy should elicit such waves of "enlightenment." While I do not support censorship or silly revisions, I do not teach the book and have never second-guessed that decision. As usual, I invite your readers to visit my blog at teachermandc.com.

Posted by: dcproud1 | January 12, 2011 2:40 AM | Report abuse

When Disney Studios was filming "Old Yeller," Walt Disney was advised to change the ending, because having the teenager kill his dog would upset the children in the audience. His response was that the teenager having the maturity to do something so difficult to protect his family was the whole point of the story, and if the kids didn't understand that, they were too young to see the show.

Any student who cannot cope with the language in Huck Finn--probably most high-school students--is too immature to be reading it in class. Reassign it at a higher grade in such a case, but Twain wrote it and it should not be changed.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | January 12, 2011 3:49 PM | Report abuse

The article & discussion bring to mind the wonderful short story: MUCH ADO ABOUT [CENSORED] by Connie Willis. (Also published as "Ado.") Here's a description from a patron review on amazon: "This delightful little gem launches itself at PC behavior and censorship taken to its extremes when a class decides to read Shakespeare. They keep running into snags: The Drapery Defense League objects to Hamlet because Polonius is stabbed while he's hiding behind a curtain. Or there's the protest of the National Coalition Against Contractions (who feel that the use of contractions is directly responsible for the increase in crime rates.)" And from another "Any library buffeted by the winds of censorship needs to include "Ado," a hilarious send-up in which the attempt to please everyone is carried to its logical extreme." More description at: http://www.troynovant.com/Franson/Willis/Ado.html
The story appears in: 2041: Twelve Short Stories About the Future ed. by Jane Yolen
And in: "Impossible Things" and "The Winds of Marble Arch & other stories" both by Connie Willis.

Another story worth contemplating is "Harrison Bergemon" by Kurt Vonnegut - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harrison_Bergeron. Text is here:
http://www.nationalreview.com/nroriginals/?q=MDllNmVmNGU1NDVjY2IzODBlMjYzNDljZTMzNzFlZjc=

-Carol Simon Levin

Posted by: cglevin | January 17, 2011 5:11 PM | Report abuse

The article & discussion bring to mind the wonderful short story: MUCH ADO ABOUT [CENSORED] by Connie Willis. (Also published as "Ado.") Here's a description from a patron review on amazon: "This delightful little gem launches itself at PC behavior and censorship taken to its extremes when a class decides to read Shakespeare. They keep running into snags: The Drapery Defense League objects to Hamlet because Polonius is stabbed while he's hiding behind a curtain. Or there's the protest of the National Coalition Against Contractions (who feel that the use of contractions is directly responsible for the increase in crime rates.)" And from another "Any library buffeted by the winds of censorship needs to include "Ado," a hilarious send-up in which the attempt to please everyone is carried to its logical extreme." More description at: http://www.troynovant.com/Franson/Willis/Ado.html
The story appears in: 2041: Twelve Short Stories About the Future ed. by Jane Yolen
And in: "Impossible Things" and "The Winds of Marble Arch & other stories" both by Connie Willis.

Another story worth contemplating is "Harrison Bergemon" by Kurt Vonnegut - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harrison_Bergeron. Text is here:
http://www.nationalreview.com/nroriginals/?q=MDllNmVmNGU1NDVjY2IzODBlMjYzNDljZTMzNzFlZjc=

-Carol Simon Levin

Posted by: cglevin | January 18, 2011 8:53 AM | Report abuse

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