January 5, 2011

What Censorship Isn't

Mark Twain hasn't gotten this much pub since he wasn't dead.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn ranks as one of the top banned books of all time, particularly troubling schools since it is considered one of the seminal works of American literature that (as one of my high school English teachers put it) "literate people should know."  But it's got language issues.  Not just for it's non-standard-English vernacular, either.  It's loaded with the "n-word," over 200 times, as a matter of fact.

So, now, along comes a college professor to save all the school administrators sleepless nights and students uncomfortable pauses while reading allowed - he's producing a version of Huck that scraps "nigger" altogether:
Twain himself defined a 'classic' as 'a book which people praise and don't read.' Rather than see Twain's most important work succumb to that fate, Twain scholar Alan Gribben and NewSouth Books plan to release a version of Huckleberry Finn, in a single volume with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, that does away with the 'n' word (as well as the 'in' word, "Injun") by replacing it with the word 'slave.'

'This is not an effort to render Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn colorblind,' said Gribben, speaking from his office at Auburn University at Montgomery, where he's spent most of the past 20 years heading the English department. 'Race matters in these books. It's a matter of how you express that in the 21st century.'
Predictably, when something like this makes the news, many folks outraged by the idea run to the ramparts and decry "censorship."  This is nothing of the kind.  True, real, honest-to-your-God censorship is when the power of the state is deployed to suppress something.  That's not happening here.  To the extent that, in a 21st-century world, the decision of a near monopoly corporation to not sell a certain book produces the same result, I'm open to arguing that.  But this is completely different.

For one thing, Gribben's edition will not make all the unsanitized versions of Huck disappear.  It will just compete in the marketplace along with them.  Legally, given that the rumors of the death of Twain's copyrights have not been exaggerated, anybody can print up any version of Huck they like.  There's no coercion.  There's no threat of criminal sanctions for selling or reading the original text.  Simply put, this isn't censorship.

Is it a good idea, otherwise?  I don't particularly think so.  I'm sympathetic to the dilemma Gribben is trying to address, but this seems like a bad solution.  If modern American school kids aren't capable of reading the book and dealing with it as is, there's an easy solution - save it for college classes.  Otherwise, I'm more troubled by the state of our secondary education system than the fate of a particular book.

But assume I'm wrong and Gribben is right - Huck needs a makeover for 21st-Century America.  If that's the case, why doesn't Gribben just go ahead and do it under his own name?  As I mentioned above, there is no copyright issue to worry about.  Title it something like Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, by Gribben.

It reminds me of the battle over Terry Gilliam's Brazil, which produced two radically different cuts of the film, Gilliam's and the studio's.  Gilliam went back and forth with studio exec Sid Sheinberg, who wanted a shorter happier film.  His infamous approved "Love Conquers All" edit strips nearly an hour from the film and transforms it from a dark satire in which the happy ending is the main character going insane to a traditional good wins out Hollywood pic.  Along the way, Gilliam wrote to Sheinberg (transcribed from The Battle of Brazil):
As long as my name is on the film, what is done to it is done to me.  There is no way of separating these two entities.  I feel every cut, especially the ones that sever the balls.  And I plead - whether they are done in the name of legitimate and responsible experiments or personal curiosity, if you really wish to make your version of Brazil then put your name on it.  Then you can do what you like.  Sid Sheinberg's Brazil has a nice ring to it.  But, until that time, I shall continue both to decline and also to decline.  Please let me know how much longer must I endure before the bleeding stops.
Similarly, it's not that Gribben's vision for what the text should be is evil.  It's just that it's not Twain's.  Don't pretend otherwise.

The irony, of course, is that Twain's use of "nigger" is neither haphazard nor malicious.  And contrary to Gribben's intention, it will change the nature of the book.  As Russell Baker wrote (ht):
The people whom Huck and Jim encounter on the Mississippi are drunkards, murderers, bullies, swindlers, lynchers, thieves, liars, mows, frauds, child abusers, numbskulls, hypocrites, windbags and traders in human flesh. All are white. The one man of honor in this phantasmagoria is ‘Nigger Jim,’ as Twain called him to emphasize the irony of a society in which the only true gentleman was held beneath contempt.

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