Censoring Huck Finn Dilutes Power

The new, redacted version of Huckleberry Finn (replacing all instances of the n-word with “slave”) is still a major topic of discussion, which is impressive enough, and more so as this hasn’t exactly been a slow news week, with the Arizona shooting.  Clearly, this event has brought out a lot of passion and opinions.  Much has been said about honoring Mark Twain’s intended language, about the nature of reality in the period that Twain wanted to depict in all of its ugliness, and about revisionist history (and censorship) as narcissistic navel-gazing.  All of that’s true, so I won’t labor the points here, but I think I have two good ideas to add to the discussion.

1)  There’s already a high school in a predominantly black part of my town where Huck Finn has been under a de facto ban for years, as the staff is worried that its use of the n-word will inflame the community.  I hope the community’s maturity would surprise them, but their worry exists with good reason for, as our attorney general has noted, when it comes to race, we are a nation of cowards.  We’re afraid to discuss race for fear of being offensive.  If a group of white people is talking about race, and a black person is present, the mood changes, and everyone tiptoes on egg shells.  Whatever your race, you know this is true.  This isn’t because we’re all secretly hiding some bias, but because we’ve been trained to see racism everywhere, and we’re paranoid about our peers being suspicious.  Isn’t this sad? 

Censoring the n-word in Huck Finn will only make such problems worse, because it implies that there’s something wrong with the text, and if there’s something wrong with the text, it must be racism.  One of the problems with our society is its growing inability to see shades of gray, and this censorship will only reinforce the tendency to say that if something is frank and realistic about race, it must be racist.  The irony of this tragedy is that in Huck Finn (which is about racism, but not racist itself), the poor, oppressed black man is the ultimate hero (see below).  In a setting that Twain filled with white idiots, Jim is one of literature’s earliest black heroes. 

2)  Remember the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears?  Of course you do: Goldilocks goes exploring and finds a cottage in the woods.  She walks on in and, finding the place vacant, helps herself to their porridge and beds.  She falls asleep until the three bears come home and find her, whereupon she runs off.  The end. 

Ever realize just how pointless that story is?  That’s because that isn’t the story–like so many of our old fairy tales, our storybook version has been edited to protect us.  In the original, the bears come home and eat Goldilocks.  This ending carried a clear moral to it: straying too far from the established path into a wilderness, by yourself, is dangerous (also, breaking and entering is bad).  The edited ending not only “protects” us from violence, it renders the whole story meaningless. 

So also with a censored Huck FinnContinue reading

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Style Imitation Exercise

As the year winds down in American Lit, I assign a style imitation exercise to review the major works we’ve read and the styles of some important authors.  The students’ job is to write a brief version of any four stories, each in the style of a different author.  Either the story or the author has to be one we studied in class. 

Here are two examples I gave them (I know, neither Shakespeare nor Star Wars is American Lit, but I had the idea and couldn’t resist):

The Empire Strikes Back, as written by William Shakespeare

VADER:  Fair young apprentice, it is I who am the father of thy fleshly tabernacle!

LUKE:  Oh, forswear it, vile wretch!

Never shall the days come when I shall agree

To partake of the black compact thou hast proposed.

The very seraphs of heav’n shall blow their mighty trumps

Ere I rule the galaxy with thee!

Napoleon Dynamite, as written by Emily Dickinson 

Alas and woe is me,

For bereft of the sweet tots am I.

My lily-white palm reaches–

Out–to cast away the button of

The flippin idiot who–

Votes for Summer in place of Pedro–

My heart drops and yearns for…

Ninja skills!

They came up with some pretty impressive stuff.  Here are some ideas, just to give you a sense for their creativity:

  • Twilight, by Mark Twain (he highlights the pathetic flaws in every character by sarcastically mocking their lame, emo worldview)
  • William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow,” by Herman Melville (a sixteen-word poem becomes a stark, 1000-page epic: “So very much of the innermost intensity of our eternal, ethereal souls depends upon the minutest particularities of crimson hue inherently blasted, seared into the fibre of the side of the wheelbarrow…” etc, etc)
  • A Walk To Remember, by Edgar Allan Poe  (The way it was meant to be–less corny romance, more gory phantasms torturing the dark secrets hidden inside us all.  The girl still dies.)
  • William Faulkner’s “A Rose For Emily,” by Dr. Seuss  (“I would not, could not with a corpse…well, maybe I could.”)
  • The Crucible, by Dorothy Parker (the men accuse all of the women of witchcraft because they’re neurotic and needy–the women tartly retort at first, but end up agreeing and hanging themselves.)
  • Moby Dick, by Stephen King (Ahab can’t kill the whale because it’s a psychic, flying alien!  But Ahab turns out to be a vampire from another dimension!  Now we’ve got a story.)
  • The Great Gatsby, by Mr. Huston (everybody dies on page 2)