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Huckleberry Finn and 'The Wire'

The latest effort to cleanse literature of a hurtful word is by now well known. New-South, an Alabama publisher, intends to publish a sanitized version of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, replacing the “n-word” with the word “slave.”

I understand that many people are offended by the n-word. I, too, find it offensive. But I am even more offended by the prospect that Mark Twain’s classic work will be expurgated.

Efforts to remove offensive words from books, plays, even poems, have a long history: Publishers and agencies have sanitized the language of John Steinbeck, William Shakespeare, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Elie Wiesel, Carson McCullers, Herman Melville, and other well-known writers. One of my favorite examples of absurd revision appeared on a New York state regents’ exam, where a famous line in Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach” was changed from “Ah, love, let us be true to one another!” to “Ah, friend, let us be true to one another!”

I thought about “The Wire”—an HBO series about the Baltimore police department, the drug trade, violence, corruption, and the ills of modern urban life—in the context of the controversy over Huckleberry Finn. In “The Wire,” the n-word is used constantly. So is the “f-word.” Take away those two words, and half the script would disappear. To my knowledge, no one has protested to HBO or the producers.

This is a strange juxtaposition: Our schools are cleansed of all that is troubling, offensive, and challenging, while our popular culture deals bluntly, graphically, and harshly with the ugliest realities of our time.

I would not want our schools to include all the vulgarity and obscenity that is common in the popular culture. Indeed, I wish our schools would give young people a taste for something finer than what they see on television.

They cannot do that by bowdlerizing classic literature, by pretending that bad things never happened. Schools must teach young people to read history, warts and all, and to analyze great works of literature, even when they contain words and images that offend them. They cannot develop their thinking skills if they never encounter dilemmas worthy of debate and discussion and critical thought. —Diane Ravitch

Vol. 30, Issue 17, Page 11

Published in Print: January 19, 2011, as Blogs of the Week
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