Words can wound, words can heal, words can inflame. Given the Constitution’s First Amendment, we invariably support maximum freedom of expression, knowing that we are often extending protection to words we hate.
The latest effort to cleanse literature of a hurtful word is by now well known. NewSouth, 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.” The Twain scholar Alan Gribben of Auburn University oversaw the change and believes that it will make the book less hurtful and less controversial than the original wording. As Professor Gribben surely knows, this book has been altered and censored innumerable times since it was first published in 1885. Over the past century-plus, many others have changed the n-word to “slave” or “servant” or “hand.”
Bear in mind that this book is not just any old book in the school curriculum. This is the book about which Ernest Hemingway wrote: "...all modern literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” One assumes with certainty that Hemingway referred to the book as it was written, not to an expurgated version.
Efforts to remove offensive words from books, plays, even poems, have a long history. In a 2003 book called The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn, I traced that history—and the ridiculous extremes to which it has been taken. When I was on the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the federal testing program, I discovered that education publishers maintain lengthy lists of words, phrases, topics, and images that are banned from tests, textbooks, and other publications, for fear that someone might take offense. Education publishers and state agencies routinely excise language and topics that might offend almost every imaginable group—whether defined by race, ethnicity, religion, gender, age, or disability. In my research, I discovered that publishers and state agencies were sanitizing 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 understand that many people, especially African-Americans, 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, rewritten by someone who wants to shield readers from the book’s original language. How did we become such delicate creatures that we cannot dare to read a word that might discomfit us?
A friend recently urged me to order the HBO program “The Wire” from Netflix. This is a five-year series about the Baltimore Police Department, the drug trade, violence, corruption, and the ills of modern urban life. I have long abhorred movies and television programs that are violent and that contain X-rated language. I initially avoided “The Sopranos” because the vulgar language repelled me. But time has desensitized me. Now I ignore the nudity, crudity, and vulgarity, and just follow the story. Truth be told, I am fascinated by the characters and their stories and can’t wait for the next installment to arrive (I am near the end of Season Three).
I thought about “The Wire” in context of the controversy over Huckleberry Finn for this reason. The n-word is used constantly. So is the f-word. Take away those two words and half the script would disappear. Black gangsters use the n-word freely to describe one another; so do the cops. To my knowledge, no one has protested to HBO or the producers. This is popular culture, so who cares?
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 commonplace in the popular culture. Indeed, I wish that our schools would elevate the popular culture and give young people a taste for something finer than what they see on television and in the movies. In my dreams, the schools would teach the best that has been known and said in the world.
They cannot do that by bowdlerizing classic literature, by pretending that bad things never happened and that we live in a cotton-candy world. Bad things have happened. Slavery was a shameful reality. So was (and is) bigotry and hatred. 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.
I don’t understand how anyone can put himself or herself in a position to rewrite the words of a classic. What chutzpah! I say, if you think you can do better than Twain or Shakespeare, write your own
damn novel or play.
The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.