Sanitizing Twain

Before you read beyond the first couple paragraphs of this post, write down or answer mentally what you think about yesterday’s news that a newly published edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was altered to remove the word “nigger” and replace it with the word “slave.” The edition also replaces the word “injun” with “indian.”

For those who haven’t seen the news, the edition is credited to Auburn University English professor Alan Gribben, who is worried about Huckleberry Finn being dropped from reading lists because of its language. The publisher of this edition is NewSouth Books, a decade-old publisher that produces about 15 titles a year.

Actually, Gribben is right that the book has been threatened recently. For example, in 2009 the Manchester, Connecticut School District added a requirement that teachers who use Huckleberry Finn must attend seminars on how to deal with issues of race before using the book in the classroom after parents complained in 2007 that the book used the word “nigger” 212 times. It was also challenged in Lakeville, Minn., Minneapolis, Minn., and North Richland Hills, Tex. in 2007. [See pdf reports on]

My wife says that this is just pandering to those who would censor the book. And I do agree that this clearly violates the author’s intent.

OK, so, now let’s ask another question. Honestly, before you found out about this new edition of Huckleberry Finn, what was your opinion of CleanFlicks and the other efforts to “clean up” films? When you comment below, please answer both questions before drawing your conclusions.

In my own case, I thought the criticisms of Gribben’s project were overblown. Huckleberry Finn is in the public domain. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of editions available in almost any format you might wish. The book is available for free in many places on the Internet (including images of first or near-first editions, such as this one at the Internet Archive).

Because of this, and the relatively small size of its publisher, its hard to imagine that this edition will be any real threat to the book or to the author’s intent. Instead, I think its possible that this edition will reach some who wouldn’t read it otherwise. Yes, I agree that it would be better for them to read it as the author wrote it.

But I’m also certain that Huckleberry Finn has a lot of value beyond just 212 uses of the word “nigger” and a bunch more uses of the word “injun” (or the value of its unmodified language). Surely Huckleberry Finn still has value, even modified! I’d prefer that readers get at least that value from the book, and then, perhaps after reading it, they might seek out the original wording.

As for CleanFlicks, like many people I’ve had doubts about the wisdom of editing of films. It is a little disrespectful to think that you know better than an author or director. But it is also somewhat disrespectful of authors and directors to ignore the deeply felt beliefs of their readers and consumers. While I’m queasy about the legality and propriety of editing, even with those methods that are clearly legal, I even more favor providing the reader or viewer with a way of seeing or reading the material that has some impact on them.

What makes me uncomfortable about these editing jobs is their indiscriminate, hatchet-job, search-and-replace approach. If I replace all the profanity in a work, I am also likely to replace any use of profanity that is important to the plot or crucial to what the author is communicating. In some few cases it could make the work impotent (if the point of the work is closely related to profanity or being made by profanity, for example). Better would be editing by someone who understands the work well–in the best case the author or director.

Authors write their works for a particular culture — usually one very close to their own culture. When another culture involves another language, the work must be translated into something that the culture will understand, and almost always that means not a literal translation, but a translation that brings the authors intent to the new culture. The translator then tries to write what the author would have written if the author himself were writing for the new culture.

In both of the cases here (those editing Twain and Cleanflicks), I think what is being sought is a kind of cultural translator–someone to bring the author’s intent to a new cultural viewpoint. While I’m sure that this won’t work for all cultures (just as some works simply can’t be translated to certain languages), certain American subcultures are requiring some kind of translation–even if just the equivalent of something far less sophisticated than Google Translate.

I’m sure there is a point where indiscriminate editing makes a work worthless. But for most works, be they in text or in video, that point will never come. They simply don’t require the offensive content to communicate well enough, and even a hatchet-job translation allows the work to communicate the essential.

After all, there is a worse fate for any work than being made impotent or hacked up — not being seen or read at all.

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26 thoughts on “Sanitizing Twain”

  1. Here’s my initial thought (written after reading only the first paragraph of Kent’s post): I think there’s more to be concerned about than the book’s editor (Gribben, apparently; anyway, someone who was interviewed on NPR) kept trying to pretend (he kept suggesting that those who disliked his strategy all thought that the word “nigger” was the most important part of the book, a dismissal that strikes me as facile at best), but less than what most of those who are getting terribly indignant over this issue seem to think. Editing a story for a new release, fitting the ways that language has evolved in the meantime, is a relatively minor thing, compared to (say) reorchestrating a piece of music to fit a different set of instruments — something that happens all the time to classical music. On the other hand, I can’t help but feel uncomfortable with the inclination to reconstruct the past in the image of the present, particularly when it’s done not for purposes of clarity but in order to avoid difficult conversations. It’s less about Mark Twain, as I see it, than it is about fostering a mindset that suggests we can have the past without dealing with the messiness that comes with it.

    As for Cleanflicks, I think I wouldn’t have had any problem with them if they hadn’t (as I recall) been violating the terms of their licensing agreements. It’s also true that I might never have seen the movie _Ordinary People_, now one of my favorites, if it hadn’t been for the similar “clean” showings in the Varsity Theater at BYU. So I suppose I have a certain investment on both sides of the controversy.

    And now that I’ve read all of Kent’s post, I find that I agree with the thrust of it overall.

    A point of interest: I’ve contemplated whether I’d be willing to produce a “sanitized” version of No Going Back (say, for distribution through Deseret Book). Answer: yes, within reason. But I don’t think it’s likely to happen, because while there are a few bits of language and scenes that are obvious “flash points” for possible objections to the book, ultimately removing them won’t address the most controversial aspect of the book, which is simply its subject matter. It may be that Deseret Book might someday publish and/or distribute a novel describing the experience of a same-gender attracted Mormon teenager, but given the inherent controversy involved, I’m not sure it’s worth their while to try, given their current marketing strategy of providing a safe, noncontroversial alternative to national outlets.

  2. My initial reaction is don’t censor wain. But, as a high school teacher in a white neighborhood, I found that trying to teaching any literature with the N word is not worth the risk. Many white students can’t get past that one word.

    A well-educated African-American pastor told me he objects to Huckleberry Finn being taught in school no matter how the teacher tries to deal with the word.

    Kent, I agree–this new edition may be the only way Huck Finn will be read by a modern audience.

  3. My thoughts are less about taking the language out and more about where the books are going to be used; public schools. That has been more than just implied by the interviews. Anyone can reprint and even bowdlerize books in the public domain or their own work. However, when it is forced on the public (what parent or child can protect against teachers and textbooks other than to homeschool?) then it becomes more than a question of the words. We start seeing Fahrenheit 451 slowly invading our lives as we continue to stupid down the next generation.

    What is worse is that this kind of crass re-education always goes one way; left political correctness. When the right proposes changes don’t expect anything less than rude and very loud and effective calls of censorship. I say effective because the right doesn’t have large swaths of powerful propagandist news and union thuggery to back the views up with. This incident is nothing more than racial political activism and therefore is treating it as such.

    As for Mark Twain? He has his good moments, but on a whole a bit overrated. I do find it ironic that the left is censoring an author that in his day was a leftist. No one is safe with the political correctness police, even those who are on the same team.

  4. I do find it ironic that the left is censoring an author that in his day was a leftist.

    My Twitter stream is about 75% liberal-to-downright-socialist and they’re scandalized. So while I wouldn’t expect you to take one libertarian/conservative’s Twitterstream as a representative sample, I can only offer that MY milieu is hot under the collar.

    Perhaps this article could allay some of your concerns: Thanks, But No Thanks.

  5. Responding to Jettboy —

    Actually, challenges to books in schools — including effective challenges (i.e., resulting in removal of books from classrooms and/or libraries) — tend to come at least as much from the right as from the left, and most often focus on issues related to sexuality, as described in the following blog post using statistics from the American Library Association: Another leading cause of challenges is presence of the occult.

    As someone who has worked with educational publishers for more than 20 years, I can definitely say that conservative viewpoints have an impact. There was a whole list of topics (including evolution) that couldn’t even be *mentioned* if we wanted to sell products in the state of Texas.

    I’m under the impression that there have been conservatively based reworkings of classic literature to remove objectionable content for use in schools (as opposed to removing the entire work). I’m not knowledgeable enough to point to specific examples, but a quick Google search found the following from Wikipedia: “In 2007, a modified edition of Rent was made available to five non-professional acting groups in the United States for production. Billed as Rent: School Edition, this version omits the song ‘Contact’ and eliminates some of the coarse language and tones down some public displays of affection of the original.”

    I certainly don’t want to get into a liberal-versus-conservative discussion here, at least in part because I don’t know what side I would be on (possibly in the middle being fired on from both sides), and because honestly I do see some value in making choices about what students of different ages and maturity levels are exposed to (though I have some issues with doing it by editing texts, especially without the author’s consent). However, I think it’s very important that we NOT view this as an issue that “belongs” to one political side or another.

  6. Does changing “nigger” to “slave” change Twain’s intent? Twain was working withing the language conventions of his time, and his intent was not for that word choice to be received as it is by readers of our time. Editing to meet the current convention that “nigger” is an extremely offensive word may preserve Twain’s intent better than leaving his text unchanged does. Use of language is such a huge part of Huckleberry Finn, the dialects that mark each character, that editing “nigger” to “slave” does lose something—taking out “injun” even more so. It is not the same thing, though, as cleaning up Holden Caufield’s language would be; that was meant to offend.

  7. Jettboy, I really, really dislike trying to make this into a right v. left or liberal v. conservative issue. I don’t see it like that at all, and I think both extremes have tried to censor books. I’m with Moriah, I think liberals are just as troubled by this as conservatives.

    As for the textbook issue, I do get your point, but you apparently missed the fact that NewSouth Books is a small publisher, who, as far as I can tell, has no experience selling textbooks to schools. Unless my experience is somehow irrelevant, selling textbooks to public schools is not trivial.

    Even if NewSouth has some success, I still have a hard time believing that a significant proportion of school districts will adopt the book, or that most of them will do so instead of using the original text. More likely, this edition will allow some districts to use the book that would not otherwise do so.

    Normally, school districts are quite sensitive to parent input on these issues. I’m sure if parents express their opinions, the districts will be able to decide what to choose.

    Of course, this also makes it possible for districts to decide to use both — that is, let parents choose to use one or the other based on what’s best for their child.

  8. John,

    Good point. I’m much more comfortable with arguments in favor of editing to preserve/clarify authorial intent, as opposed to arguments in favor of editing to reduce controversy. (And in that connection, should we look forward to an edition of Jane Austen that changes “condescending” to something that sounds positive in the internal ears of modern readers? “Gracious,” perhaps?)

  9. Well, I think that sanitizing Twain in the way that you have described is a way of trying to suppress past wrongs. It’s like sanitizing the past.

    I think that cleanflicks is more about trying to enjoy a piece of art without having to deal with gratuitous extras that a writer or producer will put in to make sure it sells. Violence and sex sell, and I understand that, but I’d love to be able to watch a movie without the “extras.”

    If it’s an actual piece of the art or work, though, I wouldn’t object to watching it. If there were a good reason for it (eg a life-changing message, a true-to-life portrayal that furthers an important story.)

    I think that censorship cuts both ways. I think that I’m definitely going to censor what my own kids read, though. It’s the same sort of thing as when you deal with discussions of serious topics–eventually they need to know it all, the way you know it, but there are ways to explain it at different developmental levels that don’t confuse or overwhelm a child. I think that I can identify with those who need to censor, but that I’d have to evaluate every instance to see if I agreed with it or not, and that would be pretty impossible to do when we’re talking about school libraries, curriculum, etc. So maybe that responsibility actually belongs in our own hands, (or in the case of children, in the parents’ hands.)

  10. Considering the excessive nature of politically correct revisionist history in today’s educational systems I am not surprised when I hear about these situations. I agree with the commentor that sometimes the reward far outweighs the risk when teaching literature froma another era and culture. However even the Bilble and Koran both have negative words that can be taken out of the literary contest intended. As long as the book is tagged as a “Revised” editon it is better to teach it than lose it to our culture.

  11. From my perspective, replacing “the N word” with “slave” in large part misses Twain’s point. Twain wasn’t so much going after how society treated Jim because of his status as a slave, as he was going after how society treated Jim because of the color of his skin. This changes a criticism of society based on issues related to race into a criticism of society issues related to class. While both are valid targets, one of them was Twain’s target, and the other was not, at least as far as Jim is concerned.

  12. .

    1. Understand the impulse but disagree with the action.

    2. Same with CleanFlicks, though I’m less sympathetic there.

    3. When censoring, the right and the left look and smell exactly the same.

    4. To this point, if I’m not mistaken, we’re all white people discussing this.

    5. In the modern vast-quantities-of-information-era, I don’t see anything inherently troubling about this book existing. It will hardly dent sales of the original. I’m similarly bothered by everyone retitling Blake’s poem “The Tiger”, and the bowdlerization of Huck will probably never get as wide play as that. So no loss. It’s already been changed to the z-word as well. (suggestion to wm: change amazon link to one that will make amv money)

  13. I am afraid this is just the beginning and censoring of other classic novels will continue. That’t why we must oppose it so vehemently. Children should be told that the word became part of a particular period in our history even though its usage today is inappropriate.

  14. Just be clear… I’m not Ok with sanitizing the past in the way I described above. I wanted to keep my own opinion out of it, and realized (after Theric’s post) that because I didn’t state an opinion people would likely assume I agree with the censorship of the novel. But I don’t.

  15. Lorne, what should happen when the children’s parents/guardians will not allow them to read the classic novels?

    IMO, its more important for children to read some version of important novels than to make sure every word is what the author wrote. This is especially true when today’s meaning of the word isn’t quite the same as it was in Twain’s day, so the author’s intent is not quite the same as it was when he wrote the words.

    To me, the idea that children are not familiar with classic works of the level of Huckleberry Finn is a huge problem, much more so than preserving the exact language (although I question whether “slave” is the best substitute to use — wouldn’t “black” be better?

  16. Lorne, you also didn’t say what your opinion of cleanflicks is.

    And, Sarah, I think you’re positions on “sanitizing” classic works and cleanflicks are contradictory, aren’t they? You seem to be saying that any change to a classic work is “sanitizing the past” but changing current works without the author/director’s permission is “removing the gratuitous.”

    The problem I see, Sarah, is that it can be very difficult to tell what the difference is between important elements of a classic work that should not be “sanitized” and “gratuitous” elements that are there only to help sales.

    In addition, you seem to value classic works that are now in the public domain (i.e., society has said that its OK to change them up as much as you want) more than current works that are covered by copyright (so society has said you can’t mess with them).

    I guess I’m saying that I think this issue is quite complicated — but that we’re better off by doing what we can to let works be read or seen, so long as we don’t gut their value in the process. Surely changing a few words isn’t that vital compared to loosing a portion of society from important cultural works.

  17. Th, I hadn’t really thought about it — I believe I mean those in the overall culture we find ourselves in – i.e., the U.S. population and culture. I do NOT mean just those in the Mormon population.

  18. Well, the difference, to me, is the fact that cleanflicks are kind of a black market. You buy one, realizing that it’s not “legit,” not really legal. I have watched cleanflicks but never felt all that great about it. But I do own one… Love Actually. I love that dang movie. and I would never watch it unedited.

    In that sense I can see why someone might think it’s OK to change the word in the novel. But I feel like there’s a big difference between choosing to buy a copy of Love Actually without all the sex/porn scenes, and giving your eighth-grade class Huckelberry Finn to read, with the “N” word removed.

    Just for some context… I have two black daughters, and have thought about this issue a lot. We can’t sanitize the past or avoid it in our family. Black people can’t avoid it, so white people shouldn’t treat it like it didn’t happen, or shy away from it, or what have you.

    I’d say the people who are refusing to let their children read the novel (or who refuse to read it themselves) are part of the same problem, as the people who figure it’s a good idea to publish the novel, sanitized.

    This is one of the best discussions I’ve ever participated in here on AMV!

  19. My mother was a bedside reader. She read Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and Dr. Seuss and, our personal favorite, The Worst Person in the World, to my sister and I before sending us off to sleep. However I also remember her reading “To Kill A Mockingbird” to us; more than once. It’s the first time in my life I can remember trying to come to grips with the issue of inequality. It did not come through the school or through the news or some scandalous conversation overheard amongst the adults. It came from fiction filtered only by my mother’s voice.

    My parents also bought me the simplified classics. You know the ones. Story on the left, pictures on the right (or was it the other way around?) – just page after page of summarized story with barely a nod to the author’s original wording. The intent, as I see it, was to instill in children a love of reading and a fundamental familiarity with “classic” stories. To this end, they succeeded with me. I have since revisited most of these stories in all their original glory. Some – like The Count of Monte Cristo – are among my favorites (“Wait and hope” – chokes me up every time). Yeah, yeah “David Copperfield” just be patient. I’ll get to you someday.

    I ultimately have no problem with this (though I would be interested in a discussion concerning a hypothetical NIV Book of Mormon) in this context. Just as I have no problem with “West Side Story,” or “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” As long as we’re breeding respect and not contempt for the original work, that’s fine. However, Cleanflicks does not exist in this context. Cleanflicks is not attempting to instill a love of movie-watching in children nor acquaint them with classic films so that they develop a desire to engage with the unedited content at a later date. It’s censorship, plain and simple. And while it may be noble to say “I’m not going to compromise myself and cross the line,” I find it disturbing to say, “but I have no problem compromising what’s on the other side so that it can cross to me.” For example, I would stridently defend the “porn” scenes in “Love, Actually” for thematic reasons as being perhaps the most crucial to proving the film’s thesis. Like Twain’s use of the n-word, it subverts the context. But I suspect I would be hijacking this post in so doing, so I’ll refrain.

    The argument here ultimately is that the n-word is gratuitous – that its meaning has become so contextualized in the century plus since it was written that it now undermines the author’s intent. My personal belief is that it doesn’t undermine Twain so much as Jim, whom Twain painted as almost a father-figure to Huck – a man for whom Huck defies deep-seated prejudices of the time to help. Twain created a character and a relationship powerful enough to disarm that hateful word at a time when whatever the word lacked in today’s context it more than made up for in yesterday’s hatred. I think that’s part of what makes Huck Finn classic instead of common.

    But I only know that because my mother first showed me how to see it.

  20. ET, great comment. Fits very well with my views. I especially agree with your suggestion that the summarized versions for kids lead to reading the real thing later. Several years ago I posted on something similar in the post: What Bad Mormon Literature Do We Need?

    I think this edition of Huck Finn is exactly like that. While I would encourage everyone to read the original language, still, its better to read an edition of Huck Finn than no edition at all.

  21. All right, points taken (24). I have never seen the deleted scenes from Love Actually, and so it is quite possible I got a completely different message from the one that the authors intended. But here’s the thing… I admit it’s wrong of me to enjoy that particular piece of art in its stripped-of-what-may-or-may-not-offend me, state.

    I’d make an argument that there is a difference between making a “classic” into a kids’ version of a story, and simply editing out two words that a particular audience (clearly not just children, this edition is aimed at) may object to.

    And yes, I’m a hypocrite here, because I am crossing over my own line.

    I’d also argue (just for the sake of argument) that there is something more offensive and perhaps more gratuitous, generally speaking, in what is edited from cleanflicks (a range of profanity, explcitness,) than has been edited from Twain’s book.

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