Saturday, January 8, 2011
Mart Twain and the N-word
When I was in high school, I had a history teacher named Salvatore Occhipinti who would announce at the beginning of every school year that any student who wrote what he considered an "intelligent" book report on "Huckleberry Finn" would get an automatic A in the class and be exempted from all exams and papers for the rest of the year.
But, he added, nobody had ever done so.
I was too chicken to take Mr. Occhipinti up on his challenge, and a good thing, too. I probably would have said that the book is a picaresque novel about the adventures of Huck and a runaway slave named Jim as they travel on a raft down the Mississippi.
All of which is true, of course, but it completely misses the point. There's a reason why every great American writer since Twain's time - including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and T.S. Eliot - has called "Huckleberry Finn" the best American novel ever.
"All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called 'Huckleberry Finn,'" said Hemingway. "There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since."
But now comes word that a publishing company called NewSouth Books is coming out with an expurgated version of the novel, and it's hired Alan Gribben, chairman of the English department at Auburn University, to do the censoring.
At issue: Twain's liberal use of the N-word, which offends a lot of people.
But not in Professor Gribben's version. The N-word has been replaced by "slave."
Only one problem with this approach: It completely negates what the novel is all about.
"Huckleberry Finn" is about racism. It's the story of how somebody who has been a racist all his life - namely, Huck - unlearns his racism, told by the racist himself.
OF COURSE he's going to use the N-word! That's how racists talk! (Or, at least, think.)
Huck is a racist because he's been taught since childhood that slavery is a good thing, that God approves of it, and that if he helps a runaway slave like Jim, he'll go straight to hell.
As he gets to know Jim, he realizes that Jim is a human being just like him, and a very good human being at that.
But his conscience keeps gnawing at him, and finally he resists the sinful temptation to help Jim and writes a letter to Miss Watson, Jim's owner, telling her where her "property" can be recovered.
Then comes the most sublime moment in American literature:
"I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: 'All right, then, I'll go to hell' - and tore it up."
I still can't read that paragraph without weeping for joy. If there's hope for Huck, there's hope for all of us.
But the magic doesn't work if you mess with Twain's words. He knew what he was doing. Despite the use of this disgusting word - or maybe because of it - "Huckleberry Finn" is a profoundly anti-racist work.
I'm sure Professor Gribben is well intentioned. But I'll tell you one thing: He would have gotten an F from Mr. Occhipinti.