Friday, January 07, 2011

Don't Mess With a Classic

Mark Twain wrote many classic books and is one of the most beloved of American authors. So, it is quite disturbing to see a publisher editing out language that it has deemed undesirable because it is no longer politically correct.
Gribben has no illusions about the new edition's potential for controversy. "I'm hoping that people will welcome this new option, but I suspect that textual purists will be horrified," he said. "Already, one professor told me that he is very disappointed that I was involved in this." Indeed, Twain scholar Thomas Wortham, at UCLA, compared Gribben to Thomas Bowdler (who published expurgated versions of Shakespeare for family reading), telling PW that "a book like Professor Gribben has imagined doesn't challenge children [and their teachers] to ask, ‘Why would a child like Huck use such reprehensible language?' "

Of course, others have been much more enthusiastic—including the cofounders of NewSouth, publisher Suzanne La Rosa and editor-in-chief Randall Williams. In addition to the mutual success of their Tom Sawyer collaboration, Gribben thought NewSouth's reputation for publishing challenging books on Southern culture made them the ideal—perhaps the only—house he could approach with his radical idea.

"What he suggested," said La Rosa, "was that there was a market for a book in which the n-word was switched out for something less hurtful, less controversial. We recognized that some people would say that this was censorship of a kind, but our feeling is that there are plenty of other books out there—all of them, in fact—that faithfully replicate the text, and that this was simply an option for those who were increasingly uncomfortable, as he put it, insisting students read a text which was so incredibly hurtful."
The words at issue are the racially charged "nigger" and "Injun". The former will be replaced with slave and the latter with Indian.

I think this is a mistake and avoids a teaching moment that would do more to illuminate the readers about the state of the world at the time that Twain wrote (and wrote about) and current social movements.

Teachers would be able to point to how and why this language was considered acceptable and allowable, and what it now means and how and why it remains racially charged.

Editing out the language at issue sidesteps the issue entirely and represents a missed opportunity to discuss racism, language, and their interrelationship.

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