Matt Gets a Letter From the Professor

January 17, 2011

Happy Monday, everyone.

Last Friday, I talked about the danger of sanitizing our language, and taking the “N-word” out of “Huck Finn.”  You could say, I went on a rant, full of vitriol and rhetoric.  I left no question that I thought altering “Huck Finn” is an impossibly stupid thing to do.

Then, this weekend, I did something I haven’t done before.

I emailed Professor Alan Gribben of Auburn University, the guy who is responsible for the new, “clean” version of Huck, the professor I railed against, no-holds-barred, on Friday. 

Yeah…I guess I just wanted to chat with him. 

Why did I write the man?  Because I’m just awesome, that’s why.  If you could ask someone just who the hell does he think he is, turning a classic work of fiction into a pile of dog turds like that, but say it in the most civil way possible, that’s the gist of what I wrote.  

Sunday afternoon, he very graciously answered my note.  I was kind of nervous to open his email.

And as much as I hate to admit it, he makes a decent point about why “Huck Finn” should be altered.

Here’s what he had to say…

The Professor Responds to Matt

Thanks for the civil tone of your inquiry.  […] The relevant excerpt of my Introduction is available at New South Books […] I have also written a column, “Trouble on the Raft,” [for] Publisher’s Weekly, which is already accessible online.

I will only add that you might well be surprised by the number of school districts (including my own) that currently prohibit the teaching of “Tom Sawyer,” let alone “Huckleberry Finn.”  Some districts even ban the books from the school library because students either angrily or mockingly write in the margins around the single racial epithet that is the problem in our (mostly) integrated public schools today. 

It seems to me a needless situation that so many generations of young people cannot even make contact with “Tom Sawyer” except through their parents if that is the case.  With one small alteration, leaving all of Twain’s other phrasing and magnificent social commentary and satires intact, the public school doors can open again to Twain’s writings.

 I quite understand how protective most people feel about these books and about this author.  I have devoted my entire academic career to studying and promoting his works.  This is a perhaps temporary step that I felt I had to take in order to enlarge Twain’s modern-day audience.


Alan Gribben

All or Nothing, and That’s How I Like It

Dang it.  Why does the professor have to be so congenial?  It’s a lot easier to lampoon someone who’s a jerk.

But really, he’s not making a comment about Huck.  He’s been studying Huck his whole career.  He loves Twain’s books.  He’s commenting on the stupidity and ignorance of the illiterate shrubs that never make it past that word to see its irony.

He is right.  Leave it to people to take something beautiful or profound, and totally miss the point.

He also makes another point, whether he knows it or not.  A lot of us have “all or nothing” mindsets.  Whether we’re Christians or Republicans or Democrats or fiction fans or Texans.  We become slobbering, ravenous supporters of our cause, and we demand purity from everyone else who dares enter our club.  That means there’s a bunch of people who aren’t pure enough.  That’s why churches split, and everyone hates Joe Liberman.  When we get passionate about something, we hate people who are lukewarm, or would dare water it down.  When it comes to Twain, we can either have our purity, while the book remains in obscurity, or we can make one little concession, and see a bunch of young people enlightened by reading it.

Granted, I hate the reason a compromise has to be made.  If everyone were just as smart as me, we could keep Huck as is, with no problems…

So now what do you think?  Nearly everyone agreed with me on Friday.  Were we wrong?  Should we hang on to our purity, because sanitizing history is too much of a slippery slope, or should we compromise so more kids can benefit from the story?  If we compromise here, where do we draw the line?

39 responses to Matt Gets a Letter From the Professor

  1. That’s a tough one. I, like you, see his point. But unless young people are taught respect for others who are different or have different ideas, I don’t see how else to introduce them to great literature. And that is going to be hard when the one’s teaching are rebelling against the forced respect that they had to show when growing up – listen to your elders, they know best (even when they are wrong).

    So, …..

    Also, if we compromise here, do we compromise elsewhere in great literature – Shakespeare, the Bible. Where would it stop. Don’t think I have an answer there.

    • I think that’s a great problem to bring up. If we give in on this one small thing, what will people expect next when it comes to censoring language they don’t like?

      • Well in my upcoming book I mention a lot of stuff about my journey with God, and do not use pretty language to do it. Why because it describes who I was at that moment. I even talk about God being on acid. I know I would be mad as a dickens if someone edited out stuff from my writing just because it might be offensive to others. Great writing should always challenge you and at times offend you into change.
        Jason recently posted..“The Quotable Chesterton” by Kevin Belmonte

  2. reminds me of all those people who had an issue with the original “how he loves” because it said “sloppy wet kiss” but loved crowder’s version because it was changed to “unforeseen kiss”
    tsholo recently posted..Reads of the week – 2011 – 2

  3. i still would much prefer the word “nigger” not be removed from these books. do i think school systems are foolish for not allowing students to read the book in their english classes? yes. do i think it’s even more ridiculous to remove the books from libraries because librarians are afraid they’ll be scribbled in? uhm.. yes again. [they don’t remove bathroom stalls using that same reasoning.]

    there are two things that i’d love to be able to say:

    1) that we should want students to read these works badly enough that we’ll change a few words to give them the opportunity. because i think it’d be great for kids to read the books. BUT then we’ve got to change words in all the books. every time the word “colored” was used to describe a person’s heritage, it’ll have to be changed to “african-american.” but if they’re not american, it’ll be changed to “black.” and then some people will decide the term “african-american” isn’t a good one to use, and they’ll want to change it again to something else. and black isn’t fair either, so we need another new term. oh, but the whites don’t want to be called white — and they don’t even understand the term ‘caucasian,’ so what will we use? that’s going to be a real mess. see, the problem is that we can’t just change historic works every time a group decides a term is offensive — especially if that was part of the author’s point in using that term in the first place.

    soon, students won’t be able to read newspapers that place the word “extremist” next to muslim. the word “terrorist” won’t be allowed in any writing. and no school will be able to go anywhere near a bible until every reference to homosexuality is removed… along with lots and lots of stories about rape and slavery and murder and war. ‘old yeller’ won’t be read because of cruelty to animals — so it’ll be rewritten with a happy ending. and my favorite book of all time, ‘to kill a mockingbird’ won’t be allowed because of its content either.

    i suppose you could discount my argument by saying i’m just worried about some invisible “slippery slope.” but i don’t think that’s what it is. i believe historic works are historic. leave them that way. and if they’re important enough to be read, let’s focus NOT on changing particular words, but rather on changing the minds of people who impose dumb rules on our school systems.

    2) i’d also love to be able to say that i agree with professor gribben. because he’s an auburn man. and i love me some auburn. but i can’t. [i’m too tired of catering to the foolish and easily offended in our society.]
    JamesBrett recently sells- an experiment in blogging

    • Ha! Yeah, maybe we should remove bathroom stalls if student’s can’t use them with respect. :) Your point about what different groups call themselves also carries over to the mentally disabled. Years ago, they were called “idiots,” which sounds horrible to us, since it’s now totally removed from its original meaning. Now the word “retarded” is no good. Just the other day, I heard one of the special ed classrooms had been renamed again, as if it made a lick of difference to any of the students in that class. It just made some bureaucrat more secure.

      • With all due respect Matt, I think it does make a difference to many of the students with limitations what their classroom is called and I think the changes that have been made to find a word that is not negative are important … very important.

        For both this scenario and the Twain issue … I don’t think we need to go back in books and change the words used to identify them in the past … instead change what we use from here forward and then use the older writings as teaching moments to help students think about what words they use today.

        I’m not sure cleaning up history is the way to solve current problems … today’s problems generally need current solutions that affect us from here forward.
        Janet Oberholtzer recently posted..Confusing Verses at JesusNeedsNewPR

  4. I think the professor makes a good point. If it is a matter of Twain never being read in school unless the change is made, then heaven help me for saying it, make the change.

    However, it would be good if teachers could explain what has been changed, and why, and then stimulate a discussion in the class. African-American children have been through a lot by the time they get to school, so they are naturally sensitive to that horrid word. Still, the past is not going to go away. This is a good time for public discourse that begins in the classrooms, without the interference of others. Me included.

  5. He does make a good point. As one who hasn’t “studied” this thoroughly, I want to ask a question/make a comment. How much of our societies inability to get past that word and the context of it, can be attributed to things like, certain types of music, that make light of the word or use it in jest? Is there a deeper issue going on that puts us in a position that schools either can’t use the book or we feel we need to rewrite it?
    Stan recently posted..The Face of God!

  6. I never read Huck Finn until college, although I was aware that there was a fuss over it (thanks to an episode of Family Ties, mostly). Our instructor gave us a pre-reading pep talk about why people find it offensive (and by extension, why WE might feel the same way), and then let us loose to read it. I don’t remember what happened after that, though.

    I’ve been thinking about this since your original post, and I have no idea what the “best” solution is. I know my kids will be reading Huck Finn eventually, but as far as schools are concerned… it’s a tough call. I can understand why administrators might not want a queue of angry parents at their door.
    Su recently posted..Just Put the Rock Down!

  7. I think, that the banning of the books infuriates more than someone changing the copy!!

    If words are banned, then there will never be a Beer Summit to discuss them. Isn’t that the problem? We fail to civilly discuss our demons and they show up somewhere else? Then, some kid decides that he hates some segment of society – like Democrats for instance, and then persecutes them.

    Because we never discuss hatred, we never learn. Taken to the extreme: genocide.

    Censorship taken to the extreme is a tenant of Communism. In the end we protect nothing but an agenda.

    If we can’t read the hatred and begin to grasp the mindset of the characters in Huck Finn, we have all failed. If the “n” word is offensive because of age, how about we quote it like a previously released ‘Top Secret’ file and blank out the words. And while were at it, let’s correct the Ebonics and make the characters all sound like a bunch of polished politicians. Where will this stop? Is Huck Fin the Tienanmen Square of the USA?

    For those that haven’t read Huck Finn, here’s a quote. I’d like to know how you’d change it.

    I disagree with Gribbon, and those that ban the books. If this is a compromise to get books into schools, it might be time for a 1st amendment fight! When will educators stop driving agendas, and start educating? How about some common sense along with a dose of some real teaching that presents the topic with sensitivity in order to drive a broader discussion about hatered?

    Thanks for pursuing this, Matt.
    David recently posted..Class 1 – Postmortem

  8. Mind you, we do this ALL THE TIME with older works; we update the language and whatnot to make them more readable for a modern audience. We change the print, even, on the older works and stop using those big curly F’s whenever double “s” appears.

    That being said, we’re not changing Huck Finn to make him more readable and understandable. Therefore, we’re violating the author’s intent when we do so. Past a certain point, arguing that the children won’t have access to Huck Finn at all… well, how many changes, exactly, does it take before it is no longer really the work itself?

    And I think we’re taking away the author’s ability to shock, to smack us upside the head with truth, even with such a jarring word.

    God bless you both. I see both sides but my tent is pitched in your camp. :)
    Happy Elf Mom recently posted..The Groceries

    • So you’re saying it’s good then for a 10 year old to be shocked and smacked upside the head? Try on this analogy – have you ever seen a children’s book of bible stories? It will never be a real Bible, but it’s a gateway. An editied Huck Finn is the same – it’s not the genuine article, but doesn’t claim to be. It’s a gateway to more reading and hopefully more Twain.

      • YES, I have read the unabridged Huck Finn with my children when they were about eight. The full text of Dracula not long after. And the naughty parts of the Bible where David is in with Bathsheba. The picture Bible, I reason, is only for children who needed to learn words; “look at the apple” sort of thing. Presently my homeschoolers are nine and ten and are reading Lord of the Rings (and seeing the movies) as well as The Odyssey. And The Odyssey has plenty of naughty parts, too… I have no problem with opt-out for parents in schools if that’s what they want. For that matter, we can opt out of school altogether here in Missouri. We’re blessed. :)

  9. Sorry. I still disagree with him. You don’t change history to get people to like it. Period. If people are that naive and immature to not be able to overlook one word, then the people are the issue, not that one word (or book, or author).

    Didn’t you mention something about Hitler last week in the post?

    Let’s eliminate the fact that Hitler killed millions of people, cause that is so offensive you know, then we can see what great leadership skills he had without being distracted. Right? Please (*rollseyes*)!!

    You don’t have to like what Twain wrote. But don’t sugar coat it so others won’t be offended. They need to wise up and be able to look at it in its original context and and make an honest truthful evaluation of it. I read plenty of books in college that disgusted me, and yet still gained wisdom from them. Some of them changed my perspective. Some of them, I thought I would hate, and they actually surprised me. To have not read them cause I found them offensive, would have made me a lesser person.

    I stand by my statement “When you change History, you destroy the Future.”!
    Rocco recently posted..December 26th…

  10. It is great that you had civil discourse with the good professor with whom you disagreed. We can, after all, differ in our opinions without going bonkers. Yet, I believe I still hold that altering this piece of literature is an altering of significant historic and literary material. Educate the people; never bow to ignorance.
    vanilla recently posted..We Visit a Tourist Marco

  11. Yeah, I understand his motivation, but I still think that’s a slippery slope. Maybe a disclaimer in the intro to the book, but I don’t like the idea of white-washing it.
    katdish recently posted..What would he say to us today

  12. Personally.. languages evolve, and the next generation learns a new language as technology, politics and religion evolve.

    Being not from North America, but having lived there.. I did notice that people are very PC.. politically correct, or diplomatic. They have good intentions of not offending anyone by saying the wrong thing, thus birthing two types of people, those who fight against the fake PC-ness and just rant what they so please, either traditionally or with incredible slang (as they have a right); and those who live by PC-ness at all costs despite “truth” and “meaning”, preserving political peace and respect and diplomacy.

    Technically, if we can’t read greek, latin, french and other Anglo based languages (norsk for example) and the other roots of English.. we shouldn’t really be complaining about tailoring yesterdays language to today’s language. English, in itself, has evolved immensely based on political influence (French domination of English, the Roman empire, Celtic colonies, Norsk influences) among other technological advances (the printing press, the television, the radio, the internet) thus pushing the language to evolve as the general populous’ understanding evolved.

    Language is a way to communicate understanding from one person to the other. As a general population, with a language that evolves with such factors, almost by itself (and still is), then like the example with the bible in Old King James: for our kids to understand, even myself, we had to rewrite the bible UNDERSTANDING what was being said back in the day, and speak it in todays “language” of the so called “Modern English” we use everyday.

    Yes, we risk changing the meaning, and so forth as we evolve the way we share “information” according to the way we communicate everyday.. but if we really wanted to know the true meaning of a book, we would study history instead. Example: the Bible, we’d have to go back to greek, hebrew, babylonian, egyption (infact, some of the proverbs are egyption proverbs) and roman history to figure out what they were actually talking about. Then we rewrite it in todays language.

    Parables. (to compare beside)

    But people don’t want to offend people, which is valid, so forget history, and thus evolve yesterdays language and compare it beside todays language and speak yet another parable to preserve the understanding of the general information.

    Again.. if Christ didn’t use parables, the common man back then wouldn’t know or be affected by Christ’s teachings. The traditional rabbi’s of the time had the people decieved by their legalistic hypocracy based on THEIR interpretations of the scripture, till Christ compared the old teachings beside the modern form of communicating and mentalities. Only then the people understood. Again, the printing press that translated the old latin bible into the then, modern english, King James, causing revival all through europe that changed science as we know it today, and history.

    So if we stick to our old P’s and Q’s, then we would really forget what is the general meaning, and forget how to communicate it. Words are just representations, and sometimes our understanding of words’ representations evolve and change.. so we we must go back, not to history, but back to the parable, and understand the meaning, then redictate it in todays politically, technologically, socially, influenced modern method of communication today….

    And again, this would open up to the whole question of communication to a father and a son, the elder and the new person in church… if we don’t learn to communicate in an understandeable terminology influenced by society, instead of based on history and how we ourselves understand, but according to the other, then we conquer a major issue in dying churches..

    • oh.. if “nigga” means a slightly awkward way of refering to another social class, or the working class at the time, which came from a bad caucasion pronunciation of “negro” or “black” from Spanish. Maybe another term that actually sums up the meaning at the time would work and be understood, instead of “‘nigga’ = underdog afro-american who should be abused or disrespected” in todays language.

      So today, you have the blue collar worker that works under not so great conditions, yet who are mostly friendly immigrants, thus the parable of Tom Sawyers unlikely friend. It could be understood as something like “bluecollar” or “layman”, or “greasemonkey” or “temporary worker”, “manual laborer” or something under a slightly more ‘modern’ rendition of what it really was, to preserve the parable. What do you think?

  13. No compromise on this one. Getting a true education involves being challenged at at times offended. We need to be moving children toward the truth, not away from it.
    David Wilson recently posted..Here Am I- Send Me

  14. The only thing I would alter would probably be my preconceived ideas about the professor. I don’t know anything about him, so I criticized the general establishment. Yeah, he makes a point but that only points back to the disaster that is our public education system. Most of my college students came from that system, so I’ll ask my classes this week what they think of all this. Great stuff by the way. I’m glad you sent that follow up. I know that feeling you had before clicking open his email!
    eduClaytion recently posted..Lessons For Today From MLK

  15. I still disagree, personally. Writing is art. You don’t o up to a naked statue and cover its genitals, because that is part of the art.

    Also, I think making a contemporary move only stirs the ultra-consumerism fire that caters to what kids will do. What should really be done is parents should actually take care of their kids instead of neglecting (and possibly leaving them).

    I think we need to teach our kids what it means to be mature and responsible, but I do not believe that is a teacher’s responsibility. This whole thing is an indirect, implicit reflection on American parenthood.
    Brooklyn Cravens recently posted..Just a Bunch of Hands and Feet

  16. While I understand the point the professor makes, I am absolutely against re-writing (sugar-coating) books to cater to those who are afraid of letting their kids/students experience what is a part of history. The professor is drinking the koolaid right along with the rest of the academia.

  17. I really admire that you made an effort to get another side to the story. I’m still not sure which side I’m on in this debate, as I can see the merits of both positions. Thanks for the great posts – they’re making me think.

  18. I think that it should’ve stayed the old way. Yes, cleaning it up may make it more suitable for kids, but on the other hand; those words help people grasp the racism and a lot of young folks today, even me, don’t understand how bad racism was. If we don’t understand it, how can we appreciate our society today and how can we understand our history from repeating the same mistakes.

    “To Kill A Mockingbird” is the same way, maybe as many of those words, but it helps the reader understand. It’s more than a plot, or a story, or something gratuitous, it’s to help understand. For the older generation, that word is just another word they used to hear. Today, for kids, its a bad word but when used in the right context, to help understanding of racism, it’s not bad. Our young people take all our freedom for granted (including me), now we’re trying to make racism like it never happened. Yes, the fact that racism is abolished it great, but I don’t think we should forget where we’ve come from.

  19. I also continue to disagree with the Professor. Part of being an adult human being is not just absorbing information but also analyzing it and using the reasoning skills that God gave us to determine the world view, flaws, truth and lies in the information we receive. A reasoning human being can read what is in _Huckleberry Finn_ and know that just because the characters use words that are offensive doesn’t mean that those words are now okay or, for that matter, ever were. They can “read between the lines.” These are skills that kids don’t have until high school age, and need to be developed through practice. Even though the brain develops neurologically the connections for reasoning, like all other things with our body, if you don’t use it, you tend to lose it.

    I can see making a “dumbed down” version for younger kids (even though I despise them) to introduce the storyline so that when they get to the real story, they don’t get bogged down with colloquialisms and different speech patterns, and such, but lets not make a dumbed down version for a group of people who need the practice of using their noggins!

    “What DO they teach in school these days?” (Professor Kirk, _The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe_) :-)
    Tandeming Troll recently posted..Pictures from Flagstaff

  20. Love this post! Your thoughts, the professor’s, thoughts. Thanks for writing him and posting his answer. Wouldn’t it be great if we all went to the source and asked? My, my. But that’s too simple.

    Also, I’m a Texan. I’ll watch my inbox.

    Jeanne Damoff recently posted..West Coast Tour

  21. In my short time blogging and being in ministry I’ve learned that sometime we have to make concessions in order to gain a platform to speak from. I’ve had to compromise in order for there to be anyone sitting in the audience to hear me. I think this works the same way, if we really believe Twain’s book is worth the read (which it obviously is) then we have to be willing to make concessions so it will end up being read instead of just sitting on a shelf somewhere.
    SethC recently posted..Application

  22. The book is powerful because it exposes racism and slavery for what it is. The language the author chose (over the two years he worked on it) is an integral part of his purpose. To concede, to change the words is to alter the meaning and impact. Twain is saying to the reader “You have heard it said, but I say…” as powerfully as anyone since “that guy” did. In the climatic moment where Huck has to choose between religion as it was presented to him, with its racism, and caring for Jim as his equal and “neighbor” in the full biblical sense, he says “all right then, I’ll go to hell.”

    I’d suggest changing that to “a less desirable place.”

    Educate people, don’t make the world dumber by dumbing literature down.
    David Wilson recently posted..Here Am I- Send Me

  23. This has been a good conversation with my friends and me! It seems the views are fairly similar around Glendale, AZ, as on here!

    I also thought I would let you know that I finally got my blog up and running. You may not feel like you have contributed a lot to my getting started, but you have in more ways than you know. Thanks!
    Daniel M. Klem recently posted..I Love-Hate Religion

  24. It is sad that many schools have removed it from reading, but not all schools. All of my children got to read it for their AP English class in 9th grade. My youngest did just this last year. The difference is that they had to go and purchase the book themselves.It was a summer reading project with a report due the first week back at school. The school did not provide the book, but it was required reading. When kids own books they treat them with a different respect and therefore are not scribbling side notes in the margins to share with whoever has the book next. Many kids do such disrepectful acts to other peoples property not understanding the value they are destroying. With children having to purchase the book it has set up a new respect of ownership and the kids have a classic they now own for themselves. They have been taught respect for literature.
    I have 4 kids and they all have a great library of books they have purchased because they have been taught the value of literature and of course enjoy reading. Books are always part of gift giving in our home. Schools & families need to instill the value and respect of classic pieces of art. This all reminds me of museums that would not show Michelangelo’s David sculpture, because he is naked. Should we dress him so people will come see the classic piece of art? Seriously what are people afraid of?
    Lisa recently posted..Thrown into the Mixing Bowl

  25. It’s a fine line, isn’t it? I still say…no. Where do we STOP temporarily fixing books? I see his point, but still…
    Nikole Hahn recently posted..Freedom in Silence

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  1. Tweets that mention Matt Gets a Letter From the Professor | The Church of No People -- - January 17, 2011

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Glynn Young, Matt Appling. Matt Appling said: Today's blog: Prof Alan Gribben who's editing Huck Finn, responds to my rant […]

  2. 60 Minutes discusses NewSouth’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn - NewSouth Books - March 21, 2011

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