Twain Weeps

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on January 4, 2011

Put me down as a vote against the bowdlerization of Huckleberry Finn.

The use of the n-word as a casual description tool for African-Americans, or the use of an offensive word that seeks to serve as a casual description tool for American Indians is utterly repulsive–which should go without saying. But the use of such words in Huckleberry Finn serves to situate the story in a particular time in American history, when the words were considered acceptable, and conveyed a general societal attitude towards African-Americans, and American Indians. To fully understand that societal attitude, we have to read those words. Twain himself was no racist, and deplored racism just about anywhere and anytime that he encountered it. He used offensive description tools not because he was a racist, but rather, because he thought that it was necessary to help the reader understand the mindset of the characters who made up his story, and the times in which they were supposed to have lived.

In doing so, of course, Twain lent his story historical power, and emotional poignancy. He allowed the reader to relate strongly to the tale, historical period, and morals of Huckleberry Finn. The words of his story, like any set of well-chosen words, are powerful not only in isolation, but also in the way that they influence the choice of other words in the story, and in the way that they influence the story as a whole. Their power ripples throughout the story. To think that one can engage in some kind of smart-bomb bowdlerization of Huckleberry Finn, in which certain words can be removed without affecting the impact of surrounding words, and without lessening the impact of the story, is to fool oneself. Neither bowdlerization, nor out-and-out censorship is neat and tidy. Quite the contrary; it is messy, it is mean, it is heavy-handed, and it substantially alters–if not outright obliterates–the influence of the story upon which bowdlerization and/or censorship is practiced.

What’s next? Getting rid of the anti-Semitic fare in The Canterbury Tales, and blinding ourselves to an examination of how Jews were thought of and treated in Chaucerian England? Removing the anti-Semitic material found in The Divine Comedy so that we can turn a blind eye to the nasty side of Dante’s Italy? How about if we just make The Merchant of Venice Shylockless, so that our tender sensibilities are not trifled with? Being Jewish, anti-Semitic writings are not exactly my cup of tea, but being a student of literature–and history–I realize that if I want to understand the historical periods in which pieces of literature are situated, I might have to be a bit discomfited in the process. I might be able to save myself some mentally queasy moments if I pretend that anti-Semitism does not make an appearance in what is considered great literature, but if I shut my eyes to uncomfortable passages in the literature I read, I will not be able to render an accurate judgment on the reading. Which raises the following question: What is the point of reading something if one skips over–or is forced to skip over–the uncomfortable bits, and in the process, is prevented from fully understanding the text?

I can appreciate the fact that because of the use of offensive words, some people may not be mature enough to read a non-bowdlerized version of Huckleberry Finn. These people should wait until they are mature enough, and then read a non-bowdlerized version of Huckleberry Finn. There. Problem solved, and a great American classic is properly left undisturbed in the process.

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