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Posted at 3:50 PM ET, 01/ 5/2011

'Huck Finn' sanitized for your protection

By Jonathan Capehart

I completely understand why NewSouth Books released an edition of "Huckleberry Finn" scrubbed of the N-word and replaced with "slave." And it's a decision I completely disagree with. As my colleague Alexandra Petri notes in a characteristically clever post, "This is like changing War and Peace to Peace, because war is unpleasant to remember, or removing World War I from All Quiet on the Western Front." She adds, "If we keep updating things to reflect our current sensitivities, where do we stop?"

So true.

Petri speaks for me when she writes:

Huckleberry Finn is uniquely marvelous because it is of its time yet manages to transcend it. In spite of the limitations of vocabulary, cultural expectations, and racial stereotypes, it lays bare the inhumanity of slavery through the power of satire. To remove it from this context is to strip it of its power -- and to needlessly whitewash a period that deserves no whitewashing.

There is nothing quite parallel to this sort of change. It's not about avoiding an awkward classroom moment, or they would have removed the word "ejaculate" from Victorian novels, where everybody is always ejaculating about everything.

It's that awkward classroom moment that I want to zero in on. As the only black kid in class, I know all about those awkward moments. Reading aloud and hearing passages in history books about slavery or in literature about the disparaging views and treatment of blacks the awkwardness for me would range from embarrassing to painful. Each utterance of the N-word or some other derogatory term (say, coon or darkie or Sambo), even in context, was like a kick to the groin that hurt worse than that time in the fifth grade when I got a little too cute on the balance beam after school.

But I wouldn't trade that pain for a cleaned-up version of history in order to make me or anyone else feel better. Maybe it's the journalist in me, but I prefer the unvarnished truth to one sanitized for my protection.

By Jonathan Capehart  | January 5, 2011; 3:50 PM ET
Categories:  Capehart  | Tags:  Jonathan Capehart  
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Comments

Absolutely. I was appalled when I read this. What's next, The Handmaid's Tale as female empowerment? It's ridiculous. Teach the truth.

Posted by: 1toughlady | January 5, 2011 4:10 PM | Report abuse

Both of you are spot on, thanks for taking on this literal and figurative whitewashing. As long as those kiicks in the groin are still being delivered we need to understand the real pain and harm they cause before we can learn how to stop them.

Posted by: CulturedAnarchy | January 5, 2011 4:13 PM | Report abuse

It's an atrocity to mess with Twain's exquisite satire. Who can ever forget about the steamboat explosion that was insignificant because only a n##### was killed (I can't say it, can I?)

Posted by: DWSouthern | January 5, 2011 4:36 PM | Report abuse

Holy Smokes! I completely agree with Capehart and his reasoning.

"Got a feeling 2011's gonna be a good year."

Posted by: yzermaneely | January 5, 2011 4:36 PM | Report abuse

The only thing this article is missing is to mention how stupid is America getting. How much damage will we do to the language and literature. Next, we will take Mell Brooks's "Blazing Saddles" and dub all of the racial comments with much more "accepted language"? The sign "Honky lips" on Grizwald's car on "National Lampoon's Vacation" will be erased and replaced with "White man"? Our political correctness is making African people living in France "French African Americans" (documentary about Africans living in France). People have no idea how to talk anymore because we just don't want to upset anyone. Thanks God I have the classic version of Huck Finn because I would not give a penny for the new one. This is nothing else but censorship and it has nothing to do in a free society.

Posted by: czman11 | January 5, 2011 4:50 PM | Report abuse

This is a sad day if this happens. Changing the wording of this is like saying that the time period and all of the struggles of the slaves during that time. Someone is trying to rewrite history.

Posted by: Dianne1999 | January 5, 2011 4:59 PM | Report abuse

This is a sad day if this happens. Changing the wording of this is like saying that the time period and all of the struggles of the slaves during that time. Someone is trying to rewrite history.This is Orwell's "1984".

Posted by: Dianne1999 | January 5, 2011 5:00 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for your insightful comments. Mr. Capehart, and for those of your colleague Alexandra Petri.

The analogy I use for this is:

You have a pig standing as a symbol for censorship. NewSouth Books has taken that pig and put lipstick, make up etc. on it to disguise the face that they are censoring a book.

The moral is:

No matter what you put on a pig to clean it up, in the end, it is still a pig.

Posted by: docqualizer | January 5, 2011 5:20 PM | Report abuse

Sure. Let's rewrite the past to fit our perceptions today. Won't we be better off?

Seriously wonder what the President might have to say on this matter?

Posted by: Spectator | January 5, 2011 6:07 PM | Report abuse

"Montag, take my word for it, I've had to read a few in my time, to know what I was about, and the books say nothing! Nothing you can teach or believe. They're about non-existent people, figments of imagination, if they're fiction. And if they're non-fiction, it's worse, one professor calling another an idiot, one philosopher screaming down another's gullet. All of them running about, putting out the stars and extinguishing the sun. You come away lost.

"Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of non-combustible data, chock them so damned full of 'facts' they feel stuffed, but absolutely 'brilliant' with information. Then they'll feel they're thinking, they'll get a sense of motion without moving. And they'll be happy, because facts of that sort don't change. Don't give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy."

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

And so it begins. First, we'll censor and "sanitize." Then we'll start banning. Eventually, books will become illegal in order to protect us from hurtful thoughts.

Those of you who are criticizing this should also be wary of hate-crime laws. They accomplish much the same thing.


Posted by: daveh3 | January 5, 2011 6:17 PM | Report abuse

Your kids are really stupid, and now more stupid. I have never heard of such large amounts of kids being so stupid yet having so much wealth.

Posted by: phippsie | January 5, 2011 6:34 PM | Report abuse

You know, Jim, them 'slaves' is scalpin' the classics like a bunch of 'Injuns.'

Posted by: peterd | January 5, 2011 6:48 PM | Report abuse

"Sanitized for your protection" -- that's EXACTLY what I thought when I first heard about this a few days ago. If we purge history of all of its uglies and intolerables, then it may as well be a tidy, bleached hotel toilet for all that we will be able to learn from it.

The library at an exclusive private school in Bel Air, California held a purge of "offensive" reading material almost 25 years ago. I picked up a bunch of the books for free, including some Twain, ... and had a good ol' time keeping an eye out for what the uberprudes found so ding-donged offensive. Yet, my entire time on this planet, right up to this date, I have never referred to ANYBODY by the (and how childish we all sound when we say this!!) "n-word". NEVER. Shows what a bad influence my choice of reading materials had on me.

Now, if we were to purge Hemingway of all the dirty language and vulgar references that **I** find offensive to my fragile flower sensibility, there won't be enough words left to fill this comment box! Is anybody proposing that kind of censorship? Or are "Hemingway words" now on third grade spelling lists in public schools?

Posted by: paletadelima | January 5, 2011 7:26 PM | Report abuse

I read with approval your proposal to change the N-word in "Huckleberry Finn" and substitute other language.

But you have not gone far enough. You need to do the following at the very least in order to do a proper job:

* "Slave" Jim is just wrong. "Enslaved" Jim (in quotation marks, to further distance yourself from the condition) is much better. Actually, "Enslaved" James is less derogatory, and avoids an implied master-enslaved person designation.

(Slavery denotes an acceptance of the condition, and does not admit of even the thought of freedom. Enslaved people are in that condition against their will, even if they have never heard of freedom.)

* Remove the pipe from Huck's lips. We all know of the dangers of second-hand smoke, and you giving the imprimatur (literally) of smoking just sends the wrong message. Jim is enslaved, and should not be at risk of a painful death from cancer into the bargain.

* Also, you need to make Huck a vegan and have him sucking on a Tofu lollipop made with organic beet sugars. (NEVER with honey! That exploits bees, as we all know, and sugar cane was made with the unrecompensed labor of enslaved African-Brazilians.)

* Eliminate all pronouns that designate gender and substitute "her/him/it," "hers/his/its, and "she/he/it." Better yet, invent a new pronoun utilizing the letters in each pronoun: She, He and It should be combined in your fertile mind to the first initials of each with a final T. That way, the book will reflect that transformation you are propounding.

* Huck should become Huckleberia, a female protagonist. As we all have come to realize via Title IX, equity in sports and in literature have to be imposed from without. Twain's writings do not employ equity in gender of characters, and he obviously did not realize what he was doing when he wrote the book. Help him out.

* You need to change the ending. Huckleberia thinks she is doing the wrong thing by not turning in Enslaved James. First, she IS NOT wrong and second, giving him/her the power to "free" Enslaved James is too empowering to Huckleberia and demeaning to Enslaved James.

Change the ending and have Huckleberia suggest empowering, through community action theater skits, the self-realization of the African-American enslaved community. In the correct double-plus-goodthink version you print, African-Americans will free themselves without the assistance of the surrounding patronistic, male-dominated culture.

* The Federal Government should be seen stepping in and paying compensation to all the formerly freed African-Americans, and doubling the amount to female gendered African-Americans just to be fair and to give the proper example to current legislators.

* While you're at it, change the Mississippi River to the Nile to reflect the proud African Nubian culture of the ancient Egyptians.

* Give Enslaved Jim a British accent. That so-called Negro dialect of Twain is demeaning to to all good-think people.

Posted by: spamagnet987 | January 5, 2011 9:01 PM | Report abuse

* Make Huckleberia speak in a dialect instead. More than 300 years of enslavement call for a language-leveling equity scheme. All literature should have characters interchange accents in order to be fair.

Even better, have each character rotate through accents, ensuring that each speaks an equal amount of words in each dialect or accent.

* Omit all reference to guns and weapons and violence and fights. Make Huckleberia engage in conflict resolution seminars, especially before Buck's death down in Arkansas. Also, change Buck to Becky and have the clans engage in relationship-building exercises.

* Lose the Duke. Royal titles imply inequality.

* Instead of quoting Shakespeare, a dead white male, have characters quote Maya Angelou, Isabel Allende, and other women of color.

* As a general clean-up, stop allowing Huckleberia the use of cooking fires, thus adding to the book's carbon footprint. Have Huckleberia build renewable-energy windmills using electricity that Enslaved James invented, thus showing his superior intellect. Same with "steamboats" -- change them to all-electric paddlewheelers, with charging stations up and down the Nile River.

* Take out all the hard, multi-syllabic words, which just make poor readers feel bad because they might not know them.

Finally, shorten the book to and add more kittens. That way, 2nd grade girls will be encouraged to read.

Posted by: spamagnet987 | January 5, 2011 9:02 PM | Report abuse

This is NOT about censorship. It's about profiteering. English professor Alan Gribben and publisher NewSouth Books (both of whom SHOULD know better) are trying to make money selling an expurgated version to grade schools wary of introducing offensive words to young kids. The teachers' caution is understandable; Gribben and NewSouth's attempt to capitalize on it is deplorable.

Join the Facebook Protest Group: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Boycott-Gribben-NewSouth-Books-Huck-Finn/154431531272953

Posted by: mattmchugh_dot_com | January 6, 2011 5:19 PM | Report abuse

Mark Twain himself said, "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug." He also makes it clear in the prologue of the book that he is attempting to have his characters speak in precise dialects. The n-word is offensive, but it was the exact word Twain wanted. Let this great work of literature be.

Posted by: mark835 | January 6, 2011 10:11 PM | Report abuse

Mark Twain himself said, "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug." He also makes it clear in the prologue of the book that he is attempting to have his characters speak in precise dialects. The n-word is offensive, but it was the exact word Twain wanted. Let this great work of literature be.

Posted by: mark835 | January 6, 2011 10:12 PM | Report abuse

Mark Twain himself said, "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug." He also makes it clear in the prologue of the book that he is attempting to have his characters speak in precise dialects. The n-word is offensive, but it was the exact word Twain wanted. Let this great work of literature be

Posted by: mark835 | January 6, 2011 10:12 PM | Report abuse

I share your disappointment with this ill-advised rewrite. I don't believe it's a good idea and I don't believe it will sell. Whatever New South Books thinks, teachers, librarians and academics were among the first to object to this bowdlerization of Twain's work.

However, I am also alarmed at the claims of "censorship" leveled at New South Books. The fact is that works written before 1922, including Huck Finn, are in the public domain. Nobody owns them & they aren't untouchable. This is actually a great thing for both readers and writers. The freedom to copy, use and (yes) alter the literary masterworks is the reason these works are so widely available today. This is not the firs or last time great literary works have been sanitize, and these abuses rarely outlive their authors. Meanwhile the originals continue to spread & grow.

You can read more about this in my article "Bowdlerdash: why the Huck Finn rewrite doesn't matter" http://thebinderblog.com/2011/01/07/mark-twain/.

Posted by: Natalie_Binder | January 9, 2011 2:37 AM | Report abuse

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