Saturday, January 8, 2011

The unobjectionable Mark Twain

Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, in a NewSouth Books edition is intended for classroom use, and plans to do away with any reference to the euphemism 'nigger', replacing it with 'slave'. For good balance, the term 'Injun' will be also replaced with 'Indian'. According to the Publishers Weekly, Twain scholar and editor Alan Gribben says: "This is not an effort to render Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn colorblind... Race matters in these books. It's a matter of how you express that in the 21st century."

Some readers have protested. Diana Senechal, commenting at the Core Knowledge blog, observes that "Changing the “n” word to “slave” distorts the meaning and language. Huck frequently refers to Jim as a “n” but does not regard him as a “slave.” What happens to the sentence at the end of chapter 14?

'I see it warn’t no use wasting words–you can’t learn a slave to argue. So I quit.'

"That’s absurd", writes Senechal. "Huck isn’t commenting on Jim’s slave status; he’s commenting on his race. It’s a racist comment, yes, but it’s blatantly ironic; the reader sees that Huck’s reasoning is no better than Jim’s, and that Jim has done better than Huck in this discussion. And it is in the very next chapter that Huck is humbled–when he plays a trick on Jim and realizes how mean it was."

Ironically, the novel Huckleberry Finn was controversial from the beginning, but not for its typecasting of Jim 'the nigger ... that used to belong to old Miss Watson' and of Injun Joe, the terrible, vengeful Indian - but rather for the reprehensible acts of its young characters. Twain writes:

"When Huck appeared, the public library of Concord flung him out indignantly, partly because he was a liar, and partly because after deep meditation and careful deliberation he decided that if he'd got to betray Jim or go to hell, he would rather go to hell - which was profanity, and those Concord purists couldn't stand it."

Then there's an episode in 1905 when the Brooklyn Public Library officials sought to dispose of the book at the request of a 'young woman, superintendent of children's department, [who] insisted that Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer be removed from the children's room because of their "coarseness, deceitfulness and mischievous practices."'

When asked by the Brooklyn head librarian to defend his two books, the author responded with the following letter:

"Dear Sir:

I am greatly troubled by what you say. I wrote Tom Sawyer & Huck Finn for adults exclusively, & it always distressed me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean. I know this by my own experience, & to this day I cherish an unappeased bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and ever draw a clean sweet breath again on this side of the grave. Ask that young lady - she will tell you so.

"Most honestly do I wish I could say a softening word or two in defence of Huck's character, since you wish it, but really in my opinion it is no better than God's (in the Ahab & 97 others), & the rest of the sacred brotherhood.

"If there is one Unexpurgated in the Children's Department, won't you please help that young woman remove Tom & Huck from that questionable companionship?

Sincerely yours,
S. L. Clemens"

In time, we have become less offended by the mischievous boys in Twain's books - but that is only because their world is now distanced in time and space, and their misdemeanors now look patriarchal and stylized. We would still balk today at a children book with the subject of contemporaneous students stealing and getting away with it, running away from public school taking months long idyllic trolls through the wilderness, drinking water from rivers and eating tree bark. Or maybe we'd accept it as an eccentricity, but Twain seriously believed in the educational benefits of this free roaming life style. For him, the school of life was preferable to the one with classrooms.

While some people say that an education is what remains after everything learned has been forgotten, Twain had a simpler version: "Education consists mainly in what we have unlearned". And he had something to say about the entire organization: "In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then He made school boards."

In what regards Mark Twain's views on the depiction of Indians in literature, he wrote an 1870 essay with his usual verve, 'The Noble Red Man', where he's taking a strong view on novels like those of Fenimore Cooper that present the Indian as a Noble Savage.

"In books he is tall and tawny, muscular, straight and of kingly presence; he has a beaked nose and an eagle eye. " [...]

"He is noble. He is true and loyal; not even imminent death can shake his peerless faithfulness. His heart is a well-spring of truth, and of generous impulses, and of knightly magnanimity. With him, gratitude is religion; do him a kindness, and at the end of a lifetime he has not forgotten it. Eat of his bread, or offer him yours, and the bond of hospitality is sealed--a bond which is forever inviolable with him.

"He loves the dark-eyed daughter of the forest, the dusky maiden of faultless form and rich attire, the pride of the tribe, the all-beautiful. He talks to her in a low voice, at twilight of his deeds on the war-path and in the chase, and of the grand achievements of his ancestors; and she listens with downcast eyes, "while a richer hue mantles her dusky cheek."

"Such is the Noble Red Man in print. But out on the plains and in the mountains, not being on dress parade, not being gotten up to see company, he is under no obligation to be other than his natural self, and therefore:

"He is little, and scrawny, and black, and dirty; and, judged by even the most charitable of our canons of human excellence, is thoroughly pitiful and contemptible. There is nothing in his eye or his nose that is attractive, and if there is anything in his hair that--however, that is a feature which will not bear too close examination... He wears no bracelets on his arms or ankles; his hunting suit is gallantly fringed, but not intentionally; when he does not wear his disgusting rabbit-skin robe, his hunting suit consists wholly of the half of a horse blanket brought over in the Pinta or the Mayflower, and frayed out and fringed by inveterate use. He is not rich enough to possess a belt; he never owned a moccasin or wore a shoe in his life; and truly he is nothing but a poor, filthy, naked scurvy vagabond, whom to exterminate were a charity to the Creator's worthier insects and reptiles which he oppresses. Still, when contact with the white man has given to the Noble Son of the Forest certain cloudy impressions of civilization, and aspirations after a nobler life, he presently appears in public with one boot on and one shoe--shirtless, and wearing ripped and patched and buttonless pants which he holds up with his left hand--his execrable rabbit-skin robe flowing from his shoulder--an old hoop-skirt on, outside of it--a necklace of battered sardine-boxes and oyster-cans reposing on his bare breast--a venerable flint-lock musket in his right hand--a weather-beaten stove-pipe hat on, canted "gallusly" to starboard, and the lid off and hanging by a thread or two; and when he thus appears, and waits patiently around a saloon till he gets a chance to strike a "swell" attitude before a looking-glass, he is a good, fair, desirable subject for extermination if ever there was one. [...]"

At that time, literature depiction of natives had no third alternative between the idealized one of Fenimore Cooper and the gaunt one of Mark Twain. The entire Noble Man can be found at - it is a well written diatribe, and one of the most offensively contemptuous pieces ever composed. I'd like to believe that his extermination is one of behavior and of pants kept up with the left hand, and not of actual breathing persons, but I am not too sure.

Twain is as controversial now as he was in his time, and we can enjoy some of his writings while being careful with others, but the last thing we should do is to falsify him especially for young readers. So let Injun Joe be Injun - the word is so rarely used that it's long lost its pejorative bite. I doubt that this word is read in many other places today than in Tom Sawyer. As for the n. word, it can be read like that in class, if 'nigger' is too much, but the text itself should be left as it is. His contemporaries have managed not to edit his more blasphemous passages, and neither should we.

(Parts of this text have been originally posted as a comment on the Core Knowledge blog.)

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