This week, a new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain was released. What’s different about this edition from previous editions is the N-word has been removed wherever it occurred in the original text, and replaced with the word “slave.” It also, incidently, replaces the ocurrances of “injun” with “Indian.” The man responsible for this re-written version, Alan Gribben, a professor at Auburn University at Montgomery, has been spending a lot of time explaining that he did this so the book would no longer be banned in schools by concerned parents, etc., who didn’t want their kids exposed to the N-word (a word, I guarantee you like assorted F- and S- words they all learned far earlier than almost any parent is comfortable with). Now, without that word, reasons Prof. Gribben, people can just read the book and discuss this seminal work of American literature for what it is.
The cries of censorship have been loud, and immediate. And not entirely correct. What Prof. Gribben has done is not censorship. It’s something more insidious. It’s bowdlerization.
Censorship is the banning outright of material deemed offensive by some agency of official authority. Bowdlerization is the editing down and tidying up of portions of a piece of material deemed offensive or unsuitable by some private individual. The edited material is then passed off as being just as good as the original, maybe even better, because the new version doesn’t force anybody to deal with the icky bits.
Now, I will not deny that the N-word is unique in the English language as spoken in the US. How a single word came to embody all the inequality, struggle, and complexity of the long history between the descendents of African and European Americans is incredibly long and could fill books. In fact, it has. If there is a single word that excites stronger emotion and more vociferous debate, I don’t know what it is. It is also the most frequently cited reason for the removal of Huck Finn from school libraries and reading lists.
So I can see where Prof. Gribben is coming from, especially when he argues that this one word is not the whole meaning and essence of Huck Finn. He’s right, it’s not. And it sounds perfectly reasonable that if a single word is keeping kids from being allowed to study one of the most important novels in American literature, just take out the BLEEPing word. Bowdlerize the book and everybody can relax and get onto analyzing the social satire, the humor and that weird tacked on ending with Tom Sawyer staging an appopriately dramatic escape for Jim that almost gets Jim killed.
Except. And what I’m about to say here is nothing new, or surprising, but I’m going to say it anyway:
Words are important. With all due respect to the Bard (the original target of Bowdlerization in the 19th century, BTW), a rose by any other name does not smell as sweet. Ordinary, everyday words, especially in the hands of a great author, convey precise meaning and emphasis. Change the word, and you change that meaning, that emphasis. You change the work, and the effect of the work. If this is true with ordinary words, how much more true is it going to be with the most hated and feared word in the language?
Then there’s the other problem. Say it’s okay to take out that one word. It’s a bad word, a nasty word, a degrading and demeaning word and kids can’t handle the nuances of its history and badness, and incidently, might go around repeating it. So, what’s the next word to go? The next book to clean up so it can be read without worrying the parents too much? If one word is bad, what about one sentence, one paragraph, one page? One religion, one culture, one amemendment, one character, one line of argument?
These things never, ever stop with one word.
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