I like to think that my bookshelves hold a staggering variety of fiction, that I have the reading tastes of a true eclectic. The truth is, perhaps, a bit less exciting. A wander through my (freakishly organized) shelves will turn up a large amount of nineteenth-century literature, a smattering of modernism, and a hearty amount of “contemporary classics” (a term I despise but can find no substitute for). Some of these pages have yet to be turned, and others look like they have been through a war. I’m not boasting: Overall, it’s rather standard fare, the evidence of a pretty conventional literary education.
(From 'Huck Finn' to 'Humpty-Dumpty,' check out our slideshow of the worst literary revisions of all time.)
But conventional is not the same as inoffensive; and my wholesome library is riddled with passages that are, by our standards, ugly and obscene. Old books, the ones we call classics, are often fascinating and offensive in the same measure, for the same reasons. Reading is an activity that frees our mind to parse moral and emotional complications, as we dig through the dilemmas of fictional characters and grapple with the fruits of our discovery. Often, those dilemmas are of a comprehensible and even banal nature—the stuff of ordinary experience, which transcends differences of time and place. But sometimes, we come upon characters or sentiments that repel us, that we find hard to comprehend and also to condone. We discover that our most cherished authors do not follow our own codes of civility, and their writing is scarred with racism, sexism, and the like.
The noteworthy thing is that we continue to be moved by these same morally imperfect books. Edith Wharton’s cruel representation of the Jew in the character of Simon Rosedale does not quite ruin or disqualify The House of Mirth. Despite its narrow views on evangelical Christianity, I keep coming back to Jane Eyre. As for the ill treatment of women—the canon is rife with it. We frequently encounter “offensive” material wrapped in delightful, elegant, illuminating narrative, and we can do nothing, save stop reading these novels and plays, to avoid it. The authors are no longer around to receive our protests, or to alter their work—and only they would have the authority to do so. We can scribble our rage in the margins, but the text we must leave alone.
Or must we? In an attempt to “rectify” the reputation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Alan Gribben, a professor at Auburn University, has joined forces with NewSouth Books to publish a new edition of Mark Twain’s most lauded novel, in which the word “nigger” has been entirely removed and replaced with the word “slave.” The reasoning behind Gribben’s prettifying tweak is that this one “single, singularly offensive word” has become a barrier to its inclusion on school reading lists. Students, he claims, cannot bring themselves to read such offensive language, and teachers feel that, “in the new classroom,” they simply “cannot [teach Huck Finn] anymore.” He goes on, “For a single word to form a barrier, it seems such an unnecessary state of affairs.”
I understand Gribben’s impulse to rebel, but I’m afraid this “state of affairs” he doesn’t like is indeed necessary. The integrity of a writer’s text is one of the sanctities of literature. What a writer writes is what a writer writes, and there is nothing we can do about that. Of course, translators, editors, and those closely involved in the publication process do have their way with the author’s manuscript, and there are gray areas in which the author’s language may not be clear or his intention known; but that hardly justifies our own intervention in a text because we would prefer it to read differently. It is also true that many writers repeatedly dip back into their own work, revising and editing for decades; but the text is theirs to do as they wish. The text is a living but finished thing, and we have no democratic right to change it to suit our tastes, even if our tastes are more ethically justifiable.
Moreover, to reach into the past with a contemporary mindset can be a dangerous game to play. Presentism can only lead to a severely distorted perception of history, as differences are erased and anachronisms abound. This should be obvious. But the inhibition of the itch to reach back and insert our own view of a social or political or moral question into a text may be a little less obvious in this era of customization, when it is common practice to edit and customize everything from Nikes to Facebook pages. Perhaps it is not surprising that a professor would choose to “find and replace” his way through an archetype of American literature so that it may no longer offend us.
Most importantly, the memory of prejudice is our most potent weapon against prejudice itself. As a society, we cannot afford to bowdlerize our collective memory. We do not shy away from teaching our children about the Holocaust; we do not disallow all mention of September 11; and, even more to the point, we pass along the history of our nation’s own faults—Japanese internment camps, slavery, the systemic destruction of the Native American way of life. To “never forget,” as the bumper sticker commands, is to remind ourselves daily that we are responsible for the moral quality of our future.
And so, the removal of the word “nigger” from Huckleberry Finn is another chink in the armor of our critical thinking. If the n-word is a barrier to reading Huckleberry Finn, then I see all the more reason—I say this as a former teacher of literature to schoolchildren—why its retention is imperative. Novels are safe havens for young children, places to explore the dark sides of existence without real-world ramifications. That is why the study of fiction is itself a moral education. In this imaginative exploration of human weakness and error and cruelty, the student also encounters the reality of racism. Indeed, the classroom is the optimal environment for such an encounter. With the support and guidance of a teacher, the shock and the anger can be recognized and analyzed, and turned into a beneficial pedagogical experience. A lesson on racial epithets, and why we do not use them, and what their career has been in the history of American English—surely this is preferable to the avoidance of the subject, which is an exercise in cultural dishonesty.
And where will it end? Shall we have The Merchant of Venice without the merchant of Venice? Should we skip over Daniel Deronda entirely? How about using the latest in computer technology to remove the blackface from old “Amos and Andy” clips? Might the world be a better place without the oeuvre of Henry Miller?
Perhaps, but let’s not find out, and let’s not even imagine.
Hillary Kelly is the assistant editor of The Book.
Hillary Kelly is the digital media editor at The New Republic.