Confront, don’t sanitize the American past

McGill Tribune

Issues of censorship, freedom of speech, and political correctness being major concerns of the Tribune, we were alarmed to read that Alan Gribben, a prominent American Mark Twain scholar and Harvard professor, will be re-issuing the classic novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with two small changes: the inflammatory word “nigger,” used 219 times in the book, will be replaced with the more moderate term “slave,” and the term “Injun” is being removed from name of the character “Injun Joe.”  According to Gribben, his lecture audiences and discussion groups are more comfortable with the revised version of the book.  A culturally-sensitive option should thus make the book more appealing to teachers who are otherwise hesitant to read and discuss the book in classrooms.  

One of the issues at hand is maintaining artistic integrity in the face of censorship. Twain’s use of both terms is representative of the culture and language of the late 1800s, and not an intentionally hurtful epithet. Although it’s only one edition of the book it would still set a precedent which could lead to further revisions of the novel that take away from its powerful message. If this edition is successful, publication houses may be tempted to publish “clean” editions of other novels in order to appease public sensibilities. Revisions by the present American culture of past literary classics would represent a disturbing trend were it to continue. There is truth, historical and otherwise, contained in a work like Huckleberry Finn, a sanctity in the complete work which cannot be altered, even in the most seemingly insignificant way.

The more disturbing problem is America’s collective unwillingness to deal with its racist past (and present), and a culture that permits revisionism is one that will continue to avoid the discussion of ugly truths. While bringing Huckleberry Finn and the frank racial discussion accompanying it into more classrooms is an ambitious and worthy goal, the revision is yet another counter-productive attempt to smooth over tragedies in American history rather than confront them. The Tribune empathizes with Gribben’s objective, but we are concerned that the proposed substitutions would preclude honest discussion of America’s racist past, thus negating any of the positive benefits of bringing the book into more classrooms. Glossing over the word is certainly easier than convincing teachers, parents, and society as a whole to confront that which continues to make them so uncomfortable. But the easy solution is not necessarily the right one.

Keeping Twain’s original text obviously doesn’t give students permission to use the word casually. In a larger social context, high school students are bound to encounter the word at some point, and a classroom is safer and more open to discussion than most other situations. Just listen to a few popular songs—the word can’t be avoided for a person’s entire life. It’s better for teachers to engage their students in the necessarily controversial discussion about the use of the word in the historical context of Twain’s novel than to promote and encourage a smoothing over of American history’s rough edges by its omission.

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