The Ethics of “Improving” Mark Twain

From Publishers Weekly:

“Mark Twain …defined a “classic” as “a book which people praise and don’t read.” Rather than see Twain’s most important work succumb to that fate, Twain scholar Alan Gribben and NewSouth Books plan to release a version of Huckleberry Finn, in a single volume with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, that does away with the “n” word (as well as the “in” word, “Injun”) by replacing it with the word “slave.”

“This is not an effort to render Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn colorblind,” said Gribben, speaking from his office at Auburn University at Montgomery, where he’s spent most of the past 20 years heading the English department. “Race matters in these books. It’s a matter of how you express that in the 21st century.”

No law can stop Gribben and NewSouth from doing this vandalism to Twain’s classics. The two books are firmly ensconced in the realm of the public domain: no longer subject to copyright,  Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer can be published in Pig Latin or with all the characters transformed into Martians. Still, it is wrong, obviously wrong and inexcusably wrong, and the most responsible thing any of us can do in the name of respect for literature, authors, American history, and education is to say so as vociferously as possible in as many ways and media as possible, so no misguided, politically correct fool will ever be tempted to do anything like this again.

Taking “nigger” out of Huckleberry Finn does not express the same story “in 21st Century terms.” It whitewashes racism. It misrepresents history. Worst of all, it places Mark Twain’s name on a piece of censured, namby-pambified pablum that he would never have written, and would have furiously objected to if he were alive.

You can’t depict the dehumanizing culture of racism and slavery without using the language used by racists. Twain knew that; so did Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose Uncle Tom’s Cabin used “nigger” four times more frequently than Twain, with devastating effect. The rationalization for Gribben’s defacing two classics is that watered down Twain is better than no Twain at all. As columnist Nina Shen Rastogi argued wanly in Slate,  “If taking out the n-word means more students can be exposed to it, well, I’m not convinced that that’s a horrible thing.”

Suppressing a scream of frustration, I ask:

  • THAT’S the standard, is it? If conduct isn’t “horrible,” it’s all right? This is a perfect example of the despicable “It’s not the worst thing” rationalization*..and it is how Rastogi closes her article!
  • How is what Rastogi finds justifiable different from removing the violence from “The Godfather” movies, which are about violence, so that more sensitive, blood-shy audience members can be exposed to them? Covering the breasts of Greek sculptures? Removing the profanity from Catcher in the Rye? The answer is that there is no difference. This is censorship, and censorship that destroys the artistic work while dulling its genius and impact, outrageously unfair to authors and their audiences alike.
  • Isn’t the only reason we are discussing this at all the fact that Samuel Clemens is dead, and thus cannot do what we know he would do, which is to protect his legacy, life’s work, and masterpieces? Are we comfortable with the idea that we owe no respect at all to the creative output of our greatest artists?
  • If we can change Twain’s words to make it easier for students to accept (in reality, easier for their ignorant, politically-correct parents), why wouldn’t the same justification argue for putting Hamlet, MacBeth and King Lear into 21st Century street slang and calling it Shakespeare?

A scholar and a publishing company that cannot see how wrong this project is cannot be convinced, persuaded or converted. All we can do is build a society-wide consensus that we will not tolerate such brain-dead, history-distorting, literature-polluting conduct, and make certain that they are so thoroughly shamed and humiliated that nobody tries to do anything like this again.

Let’s get to it.

[Thanks to Tim Levier for the suggestion]


* From “Unethical Rationalizations and Misconceptions”:

15. The Comparative Virtue Excuse: “There are worse things.”

If “Everybody does it” is the Golden Rationalization, this is the bottom of the barrel. Yet amazingly, this excuse is popular in high places: witness the “Abu Ghraib was bad, but our soldiers would never cut off Nick Berg’s head” argument that was common during the height of the Iraq prisoner abuse scandal. It is true that for most ethical misconduct, there are indeed “worse things.” Lying to your boss in order to goof off at the golf course isn’t as bad as stealing a ham, and stealing a ham is nothing compared selling military secrets to North Korea. So what? We judge human conduct against ideals of good behavior that we aspire to, not by the bad behavior of others. One’s objective is to be the best human being that we can be, not to just avoid being the worst rotter anyone has ever met.

Behavior has to be assessed on its own terms, not according to some imaginary comparative scale. The fact that someone’s act is more or less ethical than yours has no effect on the ethical nature of your conduct. “There are worse things” is not an argument; it’s the desperate cry of someone who has run out of rationalizations.

8 thoughts on “The Ethics of “Improving” Mark Twain

  1. Can I take their version of Huckleberry Finn and improve it by replacing half the prepositions with the N word, just until it reaches the threshold of the original text? And would that be any worse of a dereliction of message than this?

  2. I know this article was my suggestion and all, but couldn’t one rationally make the case that the Niggardly Principles apply? Can’t teachers make their point about a book and the story without needlessly offending students?

    I’m playing devil’s advocate because I think I’ve decided I don’t like the Niggardly Principles as they are currently defined.

    • The ethics conduct, in that situation, is not to teach the book at all, rather than to misrepresent the author’s work.
      And the NP’s don’t apply anyway. There is more at stake here than overly sensitive political correctness. The issue is conveying thoughts, facts, and history, using a unique piece of literature. If someone is offended at that, the hell with them. It’s not like the teachers can move the book to another part of Manhattan….

  3. Pingback: Re-writing history; Mark Twain’s classic Huckleberry Finn « Elsie Stills

  4. I have to agree with Jack on this one. There may be a place for a “reworked” Twain, a “parody” of Twain, a “mockery” of Twain, but call those bowdlerizations what they are, and don’t insist that they represent the original work in some contemporarily acceptable format and should substitute for it. Those who may be offended by its language perhaps ought to just relax, and realize that leaving all that language in just makes the point about inhumane treatment of one “race” relative to another, TO THE EXTENT THAT IT CAN ACTUALLY BE SHOWN. Meanwhile, there also needs to be, in the teaching context, recognition of true boyhood comraderie between the races, TO THE EXTENT THAT IT ALSO CAN ACTUALLY BE SHOWN.

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