What The Huck?
And now for the adventures of Huckleberry F—
Political correctness throws Mark Twain’s beloved classic down the memory hole via censorship.
“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is a favorite target for book-banners, Publisher’s Weekly notes: “For decades, it has been disappearing from grade school curricula across the country, relegated to optional reading lists, or banned outright, appearing again and again on lists of the nation’s most challenged books, and all for its repeated use of a single, singularly offensive word: ‘nigger.’ “
“In the new classroom, it’s really not acceptable,” explains Alan Gribben, a Twain scholar and professor of English at Alabama’s Auburn University at Montgomery. Taking on censorship through appeasement, he has produced a new, bowdlerized version of “Huck Finn” that “does away with the ‘n’ word (as well as the ‘in’ word, ‘Injun’) by replacing it with the word ‘slave.’ ”
The obvious objection to Gribben’s plan is what PW calls “academic tradition, in which allegiance to the author’s intent is sacrosanct.” But Gribben was persuaded to “turn his back” on this principle because of “his involvement with the National Endowment for the Arts’ Big Read Alabama.”
So government funding of the arts has produced the literary equivalent of those Hollywood movies sanitized for television or in-flight viewing, such as the version of “Snakes on a Plane” (not an in-flight favorite, to be sure) in which Samuel L. Jackson exclaims: “Enough is enough! I have had it with these monkey-fighting snakes on this Monday-to-Friday plane!”
But there are less obvious objections as well. For one, even before emancipation, not every black person was a slave–and not every black person in “Huckleberry Finn” was either. Consider this passage, from Chapter 6, in which Huck is quoting his father’s drunken rant:
“Oh, yes, this is a wonderful govment, wonderful. Why, looky here. There was a free nigger there from Ohio–a mulatter, most as white as a white man. He had the whitest shirt on you ever see, too, and the shiniest hat; and there ain’t a man in that town that’s got as fine clothes as what he had; and he had a gold watch and chain, and a silver-headed cane–the awfulest old gray-headed nabob in the State. And what do you think? They said he was a p’fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything. And that ain’t the wust. They said he could vote when he was at home. Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to? It was ‘lection day, and I was just about to go and vote myself if I warn’t too drunk to get there; but when they told me there was a State in this country where they’d let that nigger vote, I drawed out. I says I’ll never vote agin. . . .”
Applied to this passage, Gribben’s political correction would yield “a free slave,” a contradiction in terms. There’s no indication that the gentleman being described was a freed slave–that is, a former slave–either. We suppose in this context it would make literal sense to have Pap rant about “a free African-American there from Ohio,” but this doesn’t really capture the spirit of the passage, does it?
Another problem, as Abe Greenwald notes, is that the word “slave” isn’t politically correct either. Greenwald once worked in educational publishing, and he recalls an assignment in which he helped edit a third-grade history textbook for a Southern school district: “A directive came from on high: the chapters on slavery, the Civil War, and the Reconstruction had to be reworked. There was, we were told, excessive use of a forbidden word. Dare to guess? Slave. The term, you see, was dehumanizing and had to be replaced with ‘enslaved person.’ ”
The reason the word “slave” is dehumanizing, of course, is that slavery was dehumanizing. That is the didactic message of “Huck Finn” as well. To soften this message is to promote ignorance, not knowledge.
To illustrate the point, consider this howler from a New York Times editorial yesterday denouncing Republicans for reading the Constitution on the House floor: “Certainly the Republican leadership is not trying to suggest that African-Americans still be counted as three-fifths of a person.”
African-Americans were never counted as three-fifths of a person. Slaves were. The fellow from Ohio whose right to vote Pap disparaged would also have been counted fully in the decennial census. The three-fifths provision has been a nullity since 1865, when the 13th Amendment was ratified. But the Times either is using “African-Americans” as a euphemism for “slaves” or is simply ignorant about what the Constitution says.
More likely the latter, for the Times editors seem to believe that counting slaves as fractional persons was meant as an insult. In fact, delegates from slave states sought to maximize their representation in Congress by counting slaves as full persons. Delegates from free states didn’t want slaves to count at all. “The three-fifths compromise meant that the ill-gotten gains of slavery were no longer solely financial but that slaveholders were to receive political gains as well,” observes Seth Lipsky in “The Citizens Constitution.”
The original Constitution, it should be noted, does not use the word “slave.” Nor does it use any racial designation. Here is the actual language of the three-fifths clause, which appears in Article I, Section 2:
Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.
Not slaves–“other Persons.” In drafting this passage, the Founding Fathers were acting as the Alan Gribbens of their day, using euphemism to make a morally objectionable institution seem more palatable. If Gribben really wants to make Twain “acceptable,” maybe he should go all the way: ” ‘There was a free other Person there from Ohio . . .’ “