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.
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?