Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Censorship: Things What Annoy Me

I’m going to guess that most readers of this blog will already know about the hubbub surrounding the new version of Huck Finn censoring all words deemed racist in nature.

I’d like to say that Twain, if he were alive, would smack his head at their idiocy and tell them all to go fuck themselves. (Sorry, I don’t censor). But Twain was well-versed in censors and exactly how to deal with them. Twain liked to tweak people’s noses. He did so purposely and by accident. This novel in particular garnered quite a bit of venom in its day. Here’s what Twain had to say about it in a letter to his editor, shortly after the novel’s original publication:

"The Committee of the Public Library of Concord, Mass., have given us a rattling tip-top puff which will go into every paper in the country. They have expelled Huck from their library as 'trash and suitable only for the slums.' That will sell 25,000 copies for us sure."

Of course, in the time it was released the novel was censored for the opposite reason – how’s that for irony? The thing with this that irritates me is not so much that the word offends people; it was supposed to offend people. His intention was to offend people. Twain took great pains with his words. It’s well-documented that his manner of reproducing dialect and verbiage was precise to the point of near perfection. The man read every single word out loud, every single revision until each character and voice sounded exactly right to his ear. Is anyone really under the delusion that he would use the word, “nigger” more than 200 times by accident? Mind you, he used the same word in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – 4 times.

It’s not a far stretch to understand he was making a point and he was doing so by purposely getting in the reader’s face. What I think is underestimated on a personal level is that this stance was brave for the author during this time period.

I think that should be honored rather than swept under the carpet. And by people who are using his exact ethical position – and whose ancestors, by all statistical likelihood, were not as highly evolved morally during its first printing.

I think literature should be read in the form it is written in any and all ways readers can scrutinize it. Like most cases of censoring, I have to believe that most people who have a problem with Twain’s prose have either never read or cannot understand the prose. There are a great many works of fiction (and non-fiction for that matter) that I disagree with… that doesn’t mean I won’t read them. It doesn’t mean I keep my children from reading them – in fact, disagreeing with a sentiment in literature is one of the greatest jumping off points for honest discussion I can think of.

I won’t be buying a copy that’s been censored. And I have to wonder whether there would even be a discussion about this if the author wasn’t a dead white guy… which makes me wonder who the real racist is in this scenario.

(psst: the Pitch Critiques are still open if you’re interested.)


Peter Dudley said...

I agree 100%. But I'm going to change tacks.

I don't believe this is censorship. The "English Professor" in question is not trying to keep people from reading the original. Instead, he seems to have this delusion that in order for the masses to love great literature, the great literature must be altered so the masses will love it. Caught in his logical mobius strip, he fails to realize that changing the literature actually... well... changes the literature. His argument is that people like his version more, so therefore his version will be liked more by people. It completely ignores--and, worse, disrespects--the origin, history, and impact of the work itself.

It's not censorship so much as sanitization. Very similar, I think, to the old WWII movies where there was never any blood or gore or in-your-face barbarism. In the 50s and 60s, that didn't make for good box office receipts. This "English Professor" seems to be saying that using the word nigger doesn't make for good retail bookstore receipts. Take out the gore, more people will watch the movie. Take out nigger, more people will buy the book. That's his argument.

And I think that's even worse than censorship because censorship tends to be obvious and brutal. This wrong-headed approach to art and literature is far more insidious, and it can only lead to the further dumbing-down of art, literature, and culture.

I found this article on the topic, with an embedded Keith Olbermann piece. The interview with his guest is absolutely wonderful.

verification word: phinggr

Merry Monteleone said...

I don't believe this is censorship. The "English Professor" in question is not trying to keep people from reading the original. Instead, he seems to have this delusion that in order for the masses to love great literature, the great literature must be altered so the masses will love it.

YES!!! That. Exactly. You're right, I'm misnaming it. And you're right, too in saying it is part and parcel of the dumbing down of society... when we should be seeking to elevate more people, instead we're settling for subpar.

I think this one touched a nerve with me so much because the very people he is catering to, who he believes would be so offended as to not read the work, would so thoroughly agree and be moved by the work if they actually read and understood it.

I also can't help but think that this would not even be a discussion point if Twain were a person of color. No one would question his word choice then.

Laurel said...

@ Merry: I think you're right about the PoC thing. Look at the works of Zora Neale Hurston.

And the irony of this whole Huck Finn kerfuffle is so huge that somebody needs to put it under "irony" on Wikipedia.

Twain and Flannery O'Connor both so perfectly captured racial realities of their time. Trying to go back and make their works more palatable to the current reader is like denying the holocaust happened. Twain did precisely what he set out to do with Huck Finn: offended people.

Now that people are offended for even close to the right reasons, they haven't bothered to read the book and understand who is being sent down the river.

The racism in The Bobbsey Twins books or Gone With The Wind is so much worse. Indulgent, affectionate stereotypes of a serving caste based on race is beyond obnoxious. The "N" word is never used in the Bobbsey books but Sam and DInah, the "colored" couple who work for the Bobbsey family, are painted as entirely content with their lot in life while Mrs. Bobbsey never lifts a finger to cook, clean, or iron. We're treated to descriptions of very white teeth in the smiles on dark faces, heads bobbing in obsequious servitude, cheerful vernacular, and a subtle but present indication of reduced intellect.

Jim is smart, loyal, Huck's equal in every way, and the closest thing to a father that Huck gets in his life. His own "fish belly white" father is the villian and certainly of less human value than Jim. Constant use of slurs and societal stereotypes provides a crucial backdrop, a contrast, to the truth about Jim, who is a better man than any of the white adults Huck has ever known.

Merry Monteleone said...

Laurel I love you.

I had to look this up online, because I lost my copy of the book in the damn flood, but here's my favorite scene... mind you, that scene is imbedded in my mind, has been since the first time I read the book, half a lifetime ago:

" It was a close place. I took . . . up [the letter I’d written to Miss Watson], and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: “All right then, I’ll go to hell”—and tore it up. It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming."

When you think about the magnitude of a kid from Huck's background, in this time period, deciding to go to hell rather than turn his friend, Jim, in... I mean, "hell" wasn't some stupid phrase to him, it was a very real and a very permanent punishment.

I actually loved Gone with the Wind, and I know that's not politically correct. I don't like a lot of the description of the slave class, but I also look at it as another point of view that's not readily accessible in today's day and age. History is written by the conquerer. So it's valuable to me to have such an indepth look at some reasons for the South to fight, which did indeed go beyond the issue of slavery.

Laurel said...

That was a standout scene for me, too. Absolutely tragic to see Huck make the moral decision and so convinced of the immorality of it that he truly believes he'll be damned for it.

It also added another dimension to the work. Jim was underclass for being black, but Huck was underclass because he was trash. Their society held them both in contempt but they are the only two people with any moral fiber in the book.

Twain wrote a snippet later that was about Huck as an old man. I haven't seen it in 25 years but it was so sad. He envisioned him as depressed and unstable, basically insane, as though the conflict of doing the right thing against the expectations of what the right thing was eventually broke him.

Colleen said...

You are so so so right. I agree and the people who commented before hit the nail on the head. I was fighting censorship in my high school a decade ago. It seems like it will be an ongoing battle. They were trying to censor (and ban some books) from our libraries including Little House on the Prairie, Catcher in the Rye (one of my faves), Huck Finn...hmmm, what else was there. There were at least 25 books. Oh yeah, Harry Potter was on there too at the time. ::sigh::

Merry Monteleone said...


I've never read that snippet about Huck as an old man... and now I have to, and my heart hurts just from reading your summarization of it...

I love Twain. I think from the huge outpouring of rage generating through writing circles, it's safe to say he's touched more than a few of us in a very profound way.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Colleen!!!!

How are you, love? I've been perusing your photo shoots on fb - you're brilliant, you know. They're breathtaking, really.

I can totally see you standing up to the librarian and entire school district in high school over a banning. It's ridiculous that these things still need to be railed against, but really pretty awesome that there are people out there passionate enough to do the fighting.

Mary Witzl said...

I agree with Peter: this isn't so much censorship as sanitation. The rewriter is a Twain fan, but he thinks today's readers should be spared all those superfluous N words. I couldn't disagree with him more, but for the reasons you've given, I think he is seriously misguided.

When I told my kids this, they expressed shock that the N-word actually featured in Huckleberry Finn at all. It turns out they've NEVER READ ANYTHING BY MARK TWAIN. So it looks like I'll be buying a copy of Huckleberry Finn -- but not a sanitized one.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Mary,

You know, it's not actually that suprising that your kids haven't read Twain because they've grown up outside of the US. While he's been read the world over, I don't think he's as heavily emphasized the world over.

On the plus side of that, though, you only get to read Huck Finn for the first time once. What a thrill they're in for!