Oh, Huck

I think that, if the word “nigger” appears too many times in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to make it appropriate for school-children, it’s better to have them wait to read it when they’re ready than to give them a sanitized version. It goes back to our discussion this morning–let’s not bear false witness to kids about the book.

But, hey, modifying a work of literature in the public domain substantially enough that you then can copyright it is not a bad way to make a living.

I’m already planning my next book, The Scarlet Letter, which I will change to “B” and thus make the book about bigamy, not adultery.

You’re jealous you didn’t think of it first, I know. But there are 24 other letters waiting to be claimed.

Ha, you know, I’m joking, but Huck Finn is in the public domain. It would be an interesting form of social protest for folks to make “school-safe” versions of Huck Finn with various words swapped in for the offending one. Or the word just deleted. Undermine the market for this version.

That would be funny.

17 thoughts on “Oh, Huck

  1. I’ve never understood the Huck Finn fights. How does the story make sense or succeed to make its point without the word “nigger” used when and how Twain wrote it?

    Maybe we should paste copies of Ellison’s essay to help clarify this to the confused. It’s in either “Change the Joke and Slip the Yolk” or “Twentieth Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity” but I’m too lazy to go look it up.

  2. At the risk of going far afield, I recall a Spike Lee movie (that I never watched) that was released some years ago called “Bamboozled.” There was a big hubbub over the full-page ad Spike Lee took out in some major newspaper, since it depicted, as I recall, one of the characters in blackface. The network and cable talking jackasses said that the pressure to remove the ad came from black people who were offended, and I don’t doubt that there were a few black people who might have had an understandable knee-jerk reaction to the ad. But I think the ad was pulled, and the movie tanked at the box office, because Spike Lee (as he loves to do) had struck the third rail of the larger culture: you don’t raise impolite questions about race. In the larger culture’s ongoing haste to pretend that racism a) isn’t that big a deal any longer, and b) isn’t something we need to dwell on today, the Huck Finn whitewash makes perfect sense. Corporate media have already successfully whitewashed Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela (and the vitriolic behavior and language of their contemporary political opponents) and they’ve disappeared Malcolm X.

    In short, I understand that the word is being eliminated because it’s offensive, but the offense isn’t that it hurts niggers’ feelings. It’s that it raises difficult questions in all children’s minds (especially the white ones, who we don’t want to ever have to question why or even if such a thing as white privilege exists).

    I’m hoping I just overstated the obvious.

  3. Sam, I think you’ve hit on something here that most comments I’ve seen about this slide right over. It’s not that children can’t handle it. It’s that we, as adults, don’t like the feeling that we don’t know how children will handle it. We frame this in terms of “what if they become uncomfortable?” or “what if they make others uncomfortable?” but we mean it in terms of “what if they make us uncomfortable?”

    Like I said, I don’t think it’s a great learning experience for black kids to have to read “nigger” two hundred times. But it’s not going to come as some shock to most kids who are old enough to read Huck Finn that they are at the butt end of some shit because of their skin color.

    So, if their parents don’t want them to have to read Huck Finn, that’s understandable. But like I said, don’t lie to kids about it, you know?

    Ha, it’s weird if you think about it. Why would a bunch of white people be so anxious for all children to be able to read Huck Finn, even if it means bawlderdizing the text? What lesson do those white people want children to take away from it, if not that slavery was terrible and that the sick joke of the era is that the only man Huck meets, in the whole story, is not legally or socially a man?

    What does it mean to shift not the narrative focus but the moral focus of the book from Jim to Huck?

    Is it a way of recentering whiteness under the guise of protecting black people?

    I wonder.

  4. Pingback: SayUncle » Go Huck yourself

  5. Well, ya know, they want those lessons, but they want them to be easy. It’s a historical novel, looking back at an institution that is past, not a description of a living system that hurts real people. And it shows Jim acting completely outside the reality of what slavery had been, which softens the depiction even further. Then, it lets readers identify with a brave, progressive position waaaaay after the fact. (I started thinking about this because of this old post at Acephalous.) So since it’s a book that makes being anti-slavery easy and un-harrowing, why not make it even easier by taking out language that is tough to deal with today?

  6. Like I said, I don’t think it’s a great learning experience for black kids to have to read “nigger” two hundred times.

    It depends, B. How is it being contextualized? Is the text just tossed to kids who are left to interpret it for themselves?

    There is a complex but undeniable connection between the world of Huck Finn and the world of the African-American ghetto*. There is potential for spiritual and political liberation in the understanding of that connection. I think many teachers of black children rightfully fear that they will be unable to present Huck Finn to their charges in a way that will ultimately be constructive to even a few of them. That’s a testament to both the enduring power of Mark Twain’s book, and the enduring and evolving power of what his book describes and laments.

    *I’m referring here to both the physical ghetto, which relocates from time to time, and the spiritual ghetto that survives in the souls of all black folks, even those who escape the physical one.

  7. So, the GOP is for what the founding fathers intended except when they’re not? Welcome to the world the rest of us live in, GOPers!

    Ha ha ha ha ha.


  8. Harp, you raise an interesting question. Huck Finn is in the public domain. People are free to modify it how they want. But our copyright laws are such that the modifications get copyright protection.

    So, it seems likely that someone has already made a “safe” version of Huck Finn. Would they be able to sue the creators of the new version of the “safe” Finn for copyright infringement?

    I’d love to hear a copyright lawyer weigh in on that.

  9. Apparently, ain’t no n*****s in the Constitution either.

    It’s an important lesson in the importance of context, I would think.

    But we’re all supposed to cleave to the image of the Man from Hannibal, the genteel racist with the rapier wit. Not the pro-labor union, Darwin-loving, anti-imperialist Twain that emerged in the budding years of the previous millenium.


    Adam is fading out. It is on account of Darwin and that crowd. I can see that he is not going to last much longer. There’s a plenty of signs. He is getting belittled to a germ — a little bit of a speck that you can’t see without a microscope powerful enough to raise a gnat to the size of a church. They take that speck and breed from it: first a flea; then a fly, then a bug, then cross these and get a fish, then a raft of fishes, all kinds, then cross the whole lot and get a reptile, then work up the reptiles till you’ve got a supply of lizards and spiders and toads and alligators and Congressmen and so on, then cross the entire lot again and get a plant of amphibiums, which are half-breeds and do business both wet and dry, such as turtles and frogs and ornithorhyncuses and so on, and cross-up again and get a mongrel bird, sired by a snake and dam’d by a bat, resulting in a pterodactyl, then they develop him, and water his stock till they’ve got the air filled with a million things that wear feathers, then they cross-up all the accumulated animal life to date and fetch out a mammal, and start-in diluting again till there’s cows and tigers and rats and elephants and monkeys and everything you want down to the Missing Link, and out of him and a mermaid they propagate Man, and there you are! Everything ship-shape and finished-up, and nothing to do but lay low and wait and see if it was worth the time and expense.

    Well, then, was it? To my mind, it don’t stand to reason. They say it took a hundred million years. Suppose you ordered a Man at the start, and had a chance to look over the plans and specifications — which would you take, Adam or the germ? Naturally you would say Adam is business, the germ ain’t; one is immediate and sure, the other is speculative and uncertain. Well, I have thought these things all over, and my sympathies are with Adam. Adam was like us, and so he seems near to us, and dear. He is kin, blood kin, and my heart goes out to him in affection. But I don’t feel that way about that germ. The germ is too far away — and not only that, but such a wilderness of reptiles between. You can’t skip the reptiles and set your love on the germ; no, if they are ancestors, it is your duty to include them and love them. Well, you can’t do that. You would come up against the dinosaur and your affections would cool off. You couldn’t love a dinosaur the way you would another relative. There would always be a gap. Nothing could ever bridge it. Why, it gives a person the dry gripes just to look at him!

    Very well, then, where do we arrive? Where do we arrive with our respect, our homage, our filial affection? At Adam! At Adam, every time. We can’t build a monument to a germ, but we can build one to Adam, who is in the way to turn myth in in fifty years and be entirely forgotten in two hundred. We can build a monument and save his name to the world forever, and we’ll do it!

    So you may be able to make Huck Finn safe for schoolkids. You’ll never make Mark Twain so, at least if you paint an honest portrait.

    But taken as a whole, Americans have never been good at teaching history. Or literature, for that matter. God forbid that we actually teach children about who we really are as Americans, and Twain was nonpareil as an observer and critic of We The People.

  10. And let me just say that when you do teach history — I mean, really go back to the primary documents, urge the students to struggle with what they meant and what they imply and what effect they have — there is a certain percentage of students who will still tell you at the end of the semester “well, yeah, I know that a lot of people at the time said the war was about slavery, but I really don’t believe that.”

    Because, you know, you need to believe it before the past actually happened the way it did.

  11. Andy, I agree. My keyboard simply lacks a symbol for “insert sarcastic utterance here.” (Sorry, I was juggling my multiple WP accounts again…) My point, such as it was, is that one can do ever so thorough an exposition of the past in the word of those who lived through it only to hit a faith-based wall of “hear no evil, see no evil” rejection of anything that doesn’t conform to the whitewashed narrative that they have been fed since birth. And unfortunately, the biggest offenders of this “if I don’t believe it because it makes me uncomfortable and would be difficult to teach to children, it must not be so” are social studies ed majors

    My only recourse is to fail the students who can’t explain, through the use of historical methods and primary source evidence, how they arrived at such counter-intuitive and ahistorical conclusions. It’s not like there’s ever only one answer on causation, but there are interpretations in the ballpark of plausible and then there’s wishful thinking bs.

  12. Yeah, thought so. It’s just my shorthand way of reinforcing the point about facticity. Feel free to use it. I’m borrowing it myself.

    It’s especially useful in arguments with anyone claiming to have inside knowledge of TEH TRVTH of any given situation. It’s funny how many people claiming to have “the truth” so often are not equipped with “the facts.”

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