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Professors address ‘Huck Finn’ controversy
February 8, 2011Tweet
A Binghamton University professor of English has been given a national forum to discuss his opinion of the recent Huckleberry Finn controversy.
Thomas Glave wrote an essay in January called “Obscuring the Past” as part of the New York Times’ “Room for Debate” spotlight. The feature included 11 authors and professors offering their takes on a new version of the Mark Twain classic that replaces the words “nigger” and “Injun” with “slave” and “Indian,” respectively. Edited by Twain scholar Alan Gribben, the NewSouth Books edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is now available in paperback and digital formats.
“In 2010 (and always), we must be brave and honest enough to face the hard facts: replacing the word ‘nigger’ with the word “slave” in Twain’s masterpiece ‘Huckleberry Finn’ will neither erase nor vanquish the ugly history out of which the novel and the offensive word emerged,” Glave said in his essay.
Glave, who was asked by the New York Times for an essay, said he was outraged when he first heard about the censorship.
“I don’t think they should mess with Twain or any author’s work,” the award-winning writer said. “It sets a dangerous precedent. If you are going to do that to Twain’s novel, you can do it to Faulkner, who uses the word ‘nigger’ to depict Mississippi. There’s Joseph Conrad’s The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’. Toni Morrison’s novels use the word. The word is still there.”
Glave also opposes “the blurring of history” in the new edition. The word should cause discomfort in the 21st century and be discussed, he said.
“There’s a way in which this kind of edition can absolve people of some of the guilt they may feel and really sidestep the issue,” said Glave, who is on leave this semester to write two books. “The fact is, this history happened.”
Glave compared the Huck Finn censorship with discussing World War II without mentioning Jewish ghettos and the subsequent treatment of Jews.
“The more you don’t speak about (the word ‘nigger’) and isolate it as something that’s not discussable, the more power it has,” he said. “People pick up that it’s not to be talked about – it’s a deeply negative and frightening conversation. We are so afraid to talk about it.”
Scott Henkel agrees. The assistant professor of English teaches a course at Binghamton University called Banned Books and Stories Not Told that includes an examination of Huckleberry Finn.
“To eliminate the language that Huckleberry Finn uses is to eliminate the way for us to understand those injustices – the legacy of slavery and the legacy of racism,” he said. “To paper over those things is to obscure them and make them harder for us to understand. Deleting nigger and Injun from the book makes it more difficult for us to combat racism – not easier.”
Henkel concedes that Gribben and NewSouth Books have every right to alter the Twain book under U.S. copyright law, but it is still “a grievous mistake” to do so.
Gribben is making an old argument that is not persuasive, Henkel said. The editor believes that by removing offensive words, more people will read the book. Instead, Gribben is “taking some of the things that make the book so powerful and sweeping them away under the rug,” he said.
Huckleberry Finn has always been a lightning rod for controversy, especially with parent or community groups who have not wanted the book in schools or libraries.
“It has had a long history of being banned, but the reasons for banning it have changed” Henkel said. “At the moment of publication, very few people took issue with the word nigger because in 1885 it was common parlance. People then wanted it pulled from library shelves because it showed images of working-class people and severe child abuse. … It was seen as ‘low-class,’ so ‘respectable’ people ought not to read it.”
Henkel said many students in the Banned Books class grapple with whether to say the offensive words aloud. Some do and some don’t, but the conversation is always mature, he said.
“In discussing the book, I choose to say it because it gives us an opportunity to discuss it,” Henkel said. “Not to say it gives it a certain power over us and I don’t want to give it that power. I want it to be something that gives us a window into the particular injustices of 19th century racism and slavery on the idea that the degree to which we can understand it is a similar degree to which we can combat it.”
Both Glave and Henkel said the controversy has generated a productive debate.
“I think it’s wonderful that we are having this debate,” Glave said. “It’s essential that people have these conversations. It’s important that white people and black people talk with each other about these issues. … These discussions don’t have to happen at a high pitch, but if they do, that’s OK. Maybe people need to get angry because these are very charged subjects.
“Until the feelings we have as a society about our history are resolved and our current racial realities are resolved, this book is going to be considered controversial,” he added. “It’s a flag of the history that people don’t want to look at.”
“I would imagine that most creative writers dream of writing a book that gets talked about for more than 100 years after its publication,” Henkel said. “People continue to read Huckleberry Finn, debate it and be challenged by it. I think that is great.”