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HD: Bowdlerizing Huck Finn
Posted: 08 January 2011 06:48 AM   [ Ignore ]
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My take and a link to a excellent blog post.

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Posted: 09 January 2011 11:17 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Of course censorship is deplorable, but I do have some sympathy with Professor Gribben. Yes, of course in an ideal world young people in school would read the original text and shudder at the barbarous attitudes of a society where even good white people found nothing wrong with the word “nigger”. However, if Alabama classrooms contain as many obnoxious kids as British schools do (and why wouldn’t they?) , then teaching a text that routinely uses it - which necessarily entails allowing them to say and write it - is surely fraught with potential for trouble. Some little so-and-so would be bound to use it of or to his classmates, and justify himself by saying “it was in the book” or “but Miss Parkhill read it to us”.

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Posted: 09 January 2011 12:04 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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My sense is that eliminating the word “nigger” from Twain’s book is not being done out of concern for the feelings of African-Americans.  Rather it is to eliminate an element of the book that is inconsistent with the Walt Disney version of Huckleberry Finn (and because the publisher sees a buck in it).

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Posted: 09 January 2011 12:37 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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I’m with SL.  Yes, the ideal solution would be to raise all students, parents, teachers and others to the level of intellectual and emotional maturity that they could see that the use of “nigger” in the book was historically accurate and did not reflect racial hatred on Twain’s part, nor license to use the word offensively, but I think this is letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

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Posted: 09 January 2011 12:44 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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A Canadian friend of mine told me some years ago of reading Hans Andersen"s story “The Little Mermaid” to his 7 or 8-year-old son. The child’s response was: “This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about! The movie was nothing like this!”

I didn’t know there was a Disney version of “Huckleberry Finn”. Thanks for the warning.

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Posted: 09 January 2011 01:44 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Part of the problem may be the age that the book is targeted at. Because it’s a “boy’s adventure,” many educators assume that Huck Finn should be read by pre- or young teens. But the book is a sophisticated, adult novel. I read it as a junior in high school, eleventh grade, in an advanced placement course. There was no snickering or behavioral problems and, as it should be, the entire class was appalled by the casual racism that was portrayed in the book.

I would have no problem reserving Huck Finn for university or advanced secondary classes, not because of the racism, but because its a work of literature that can’t be fully digested by less advanced students. Teach Tom Sawyer or Connecticut Yankee if you want a Twain novel for younger or less mature teens.

But I still think that if properly presented by a teacher who has control of the class, the racism in the novel should not cause problems, even for younger teens.

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Posted: 10 January 2011 06:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Apart from the rights and wrongs of bowdlerising the book at all, I find Gribben’s choice of slave as a replacement for nigger very strange. Surely these nouns aren’t interchangeable, especially as a good deal of the plot concerns Jim’s desire for himself and his family to escape slavery, and the ultimate revelation that for months he hasn’t actually been a slave at all. I would have thought that black or black man would be the obvious synonyms to use; can any Leftpondian comment?

I’d be grateful too if any Leftpondians can explain to me what exactly is offensive about Injun as opposed to Indian. Surely Injun is just a phonetic rendering of the way Twain’s characters would have pronounced the word; so what’s the problem with it?

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Posted: 10 January 2011 07:11 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Dave Wilton - 09 January 2011 01:44 PM

Part of the problem may be the age that the book is targeted at.

This is exactly what I was thinking.

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Posted: 10 January 2011 07:31 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Johnson has an excellent discussion of this, with which I entirely agree, including the “Update” that quotes Gish Jen’s comment: “It is, of course, perfectly fine to change the texts of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, so long as the cover reads, by Mark Twain* with a footnote: *as bowdlerized by Alan Gribben.”

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Posted: 10 January 2011 09:17 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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I’d be grateful too if any Leftpondians can explain to me what exactly is offensive about Injun as opposed to Indian. Surely Injun is just a phonetic rendering of the way Twain’s characters would have pronounced the word; so what’s the problem with it?

Along the same line, though somewhat more offensive, nigger is a rendering in a southern dialect of Negro, which at one time, just meant black. (I have no doubt that you know that SL, just making an obvious point).

Canada has been using “First Nations” for sometime.  The US tends to use “Native Americans.” Injun is offensive in North America as these things go.  The history contained in that word is painful. I’d have thought that the editor could have easily left that one alone, however.

Interesting about this issue of bowlderization. The King James Bible uses the word “pisseth” at several points but all the later translations use another euphemism.  The reason I know about this is that Twain’s Letters from the Earth has a very funny routine on this regarding the strangeness of the laws and commandments in the Bible.

Take the case of Jeroboam. “I will cut off from Jeroboam him that pisseth against the wall.” It was done. And not only was the man that did it cut off, but everybody else....

Some Midianite must have repeated Onan’s act, and brought that dire disaster upon his nation. If that was not the indelicacy that outraged the feelings of the Deity, then I know what it was: some Midianite had been pissing against the wall. I am sure of it, for that was an impropriety which the Source of all Etiquette never could stand. A person could piss against a tree, he could piss on his mother, he could piss on his own breeches, and get off, but he must not piss against the wall—that would be going quite too far. The origin of the divine prejudice against this humble crime is not stated; but we know that the prejudice was very strong—so strong that nothing but a wholesale massacre of the people inhabiting the region where the wall was defiled could satisfy the Deity.

Translations, I know are a different case, but just to note that certain adjustments in the original Hebrew texts were even done by Rabbis to avoid offense as they publicly read the original in synagogue.

I agree with SL and Dr. T. and others in this thread.  There’s a place for this kind of thing.  I heard the editor interviewed on Public Radio and his attempts seem reasonable.  In the introduction he makes clear what he has done.  And for older adults or even High School Advanced Placement students, he would not recommend his edition.

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Posted: 10 January 2011 11:44 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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I agree with Dave, on the whole:

But I still think that if properly presented by a teacher who has control of the class, the racism in the novel should not cause problems, even for younger teens.

In an ideal world, classroom discussion of racism shouldn’t cause problems.  But not all teachers are effective enough to be able to present anti-social ideas and control the reactions of immature students.

I’m not in favour of sanitization.  After all, the language chosen was that appropriate at the time and that in itself is part of the learning process.  School text books should be chosen for their literary merit and discussed by students of an appropriate age.  I would recommend “Huckleberry Finn” to older teens.  Warts and all.

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Posted: 10 January 2011 12:54 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Dave Wilton - 09 January 2011 01:44 PM

Teach Tom Sawyer or Connecticut Yankee if you want a Twain novel for younger or less mature teens.

They aren’t technically novels, but I recall reading with enjoyment “Roughing It” and “Life on the Mississippi”, though I don’t recall at precisely what age.  Certainly no later than high school.

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Posted: 10 January 2011 01:39 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Regarding Injun, why a particular term is offensive is largely due to whether or not that particular group takes offense and, while there sometimes is a discernible logic behind why a term is offensive, there is often not. Much of it is the history of how the word is used and by whom. If the term has a history of being used derogatorily or by racists, then it tends to become offensive. So redskin is offensive, but black is not, even though both are literally references to skin color.

So Injun is offensive, while Indian is not mainly due to the history of the contexts in which the words have been used. At least this is true in the US. I think things are a bit different here in Canada, where the preferred terms are Native Americans (also used in the US) and First Nations or First Peoples (which are not common in the US). I haven’t yet figured out whether Indian is generally to be avoided here in Canada, or whether it is like oriental, offensive to some in the group but not to others. Or perhaps the avoidance of Indian is to prevent confusion with those from India.

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Posted: 14 January 2011 12:34 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Shakespeare survived Bowdler, Swift the infantilization of most editions of Gulliver’s Travels, I’m sure Twain will survive this.

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Posted: 14 January 2011 04:56 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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My worry isn’t for Twain. It’s for the kids who will get an inferior education because of it.

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Posted: 15 January 2011 08:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Precisely.  Dumbing-down, for whatever reason, doesn’t do anyone any favours.

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