Editing History Through Censorship In The New Year

CENSORSHIP IN 2011!

Upon residing in Gotham for as long as I have, I am exposed to “the N word” on a daily basis.  And no, I’m not talking about “neurotic”.  The flurry of media attention regarding one educator’s mission to publish a revised version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, replacing the word “nigger” with “slave”, has me concerned about the overall integrity of our culture.  As a Caucasian, that word has always been at the root of many a controversy during intellectual albeit heated conversations among my peers.  Personally, it does not exist in my own vocabulary.  But following the lead of Mr. Alan Gribben, the champion of this new and censored publishing of the applauded literary masterpiece, why stop there?

Wouldn’t it be great if we could “edit” the word “nigger” from the subways, bus stops, bodegas, streets, sidewalks, popular music and overall vernacular of our urban communities? Or how about just walking around with a big, Fascist bar of Ivory soap for the mouths of those who use it? I can’t believe the whitewashing of history I am witnessing. This editing, to me, is a dangerous revision of American history and a smite to to the written words of an author who is not alive to defend his work.

Thankfully, I was able to locate one witty quote on censorship from Twain in a letter from 1902 to the Denver Post regarding the banning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the Denver Library.  It was also published in the NY Tribune one week later:

“There’s nobody for me to attack in this matter even with soft and gentle ridicule–and I shouldn’t ever think of using a grown up weapon in this kind of a nursery. Above all, I couldn’t venture to attack the clergymen whom you mention, for I have their habits and live in the same glass house which they are occupying. I am always reading immoral books on the sly, and then selfishly trying to prevent other people from having the same wicked good time.”

The best example of intelligent discussion of use of this word, to me, can be found from the mouth of comedian Lenny Bruce.  In the 1974 film Lenny, Dustin Hoffman recites Bruce’s speech on the subject, verbatim.  The controversial Bruce was first arrested for obscenity in 1961 after a performance at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco after using the word “cocksucker”.

Regularly the victim of censorship and being banned –  despite our First Amendment right to free speech –  in April of 1964 he appeared twice at the Cafe Au Go Go in Greenwich Village, New York.  Undercover detectives were present in the audience, and Bruce was twice arrested immediately after leaving the stage with complaints again resting on his use of various “obscenities”.  The good news is that on December 23, 2003, and 37 years after his death, Governor George Pataki, in “a declaration of New York’s commitment to upholding the First Amendment”, granted a posthumous pardon to Lenny Bruce.  It was a landmark decision, and the first in New York history.

Here is Dustin Hoffman appearing as Bruce in the film (unfortunately embedding of the video has been disabled, but I encourage the reader to click the link here and to comment on this blog post below): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SOnkv76rNL4

And for those unaware of details of the current editing of the novel, here is the article in full:

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Mark Twain wrote that “the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter.” A new edition of “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “Tom Sawyer” will try to find out if that holds true by replacing the N-word with “slave” in an effort not to offend readers.

Twain scholar Alan Gribben, who is working with NewSouth Books in Alabama to publish a combined volume of the books, said the N-word appears 219 times in “Huck Finn” and four times in “Tom Sawyer.” He said the word puts the books in danger of joining the list of literary classics that Twain once humorously defined as those “which people praise and don’t read.”

“It’s such a shame that one word should be a barrier between a marvelous reading experience and a lot of readers,” Gribben said.

Yet Twain was particular about his words. His letter in 1888 about the right word and the almost right one was “the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

The book isn’t scheduled to be published until February, at a mere 7,500 copies, but Gribben has already received a flood of hateful e-mail accusing him of desecrating the novels. He said the e-mails prove the word makes people uncomfortable.

“Not one of them mentions the word. They dance around it,” he said.

Another Twain scholar, professor Stephen Railton at the University of Virginia, said Gribben was well respected, but called the new version “a terrible idea.”

The language depicts America’s past, Railton said, and the revised book was not being true to the period in which Twain was writing. Railton has an unaltered version of “Huck Finn” coming out later this year that includes context for schools to explore racism and slavery in the book.

“If we can’t do that in the classroom, we can’t do that anywhere,” he said.

He said Gribben was not the first to alter “Huck Finn.” John Wallace, a teacher at the Mark Twain Intermediate School in northern Virginia, published a version of “Huck Finn” about 20 years ago that used “slave” rather than the N-word.

“His book had no traction,” Railton said.

Gribben, a 69-year-old English professor at Auburn University Montgomery, said he would have opposed the change for much of his career, but he began using “slave” during public readings and found audiences more accepting.

He decided to pursue the revised edition after middle school and high school teachers lamented they could no longer assign the books.

Some parents and students have called for the removal of “Huck Finn” from reading lists for more than a half century. In 1957, the New York City Board of Education removed the book from the approved textbook lists of elementary and junior high schools, but it could be taught in high school and bought for school libraries.

In 1998, parents in Tempe, Ariz., sued the local high school over the book’s inclusion on a required reading list. The case went as far as a federal appeals court; the parents lost.

Published in the U.S. in 1885, “Huck Finn” is the fourth most banned book in schools, according to “Banned in the U.S.A.” by Herbert N. Foerstal, a retired college librarian who has written several books on First Amendment issues.

Gribben conceded the edited text loses some of the caustic sting but said: “I want to provide an option for teachers and other people not comfortable with 219 instances of that word.”

In addition to replacing the N-word, Gribben changes the villain in “Tom Sawyer” from “Injun Joe” to “Indian Joe” and “half-breed” becomes “half-blood.”

Gribben knows he won’t change the minds of his critics, but he’s eager to see how the book will be received by schools rather than university scholars.

“We’ll just let the readers decide,” he said.

Comedian Sarah Silverman in Blackface

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One response to “Editing History Through Censorship In The New Year

  1. “Censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime. Long ago those who wrote our First Amendment charted a different course. They believed a society can be truly strong only when it is truly free. In the realm of expression they put their faith, for better or for worse, in the enlightened choice of the people, free from interference of a policeman’s intrusive thumb or a judge’s heavy hand. So it is that the Constitution protects coarse expression as well as refined, and vulgarity no less than elegance. A book worthless to me may convey some value to my neighbor. In the free society to which our Constitution has committed us, it is for each to choose for himself.”—Justice Potter Stewart, Ginzburg v. United States, 383 U.S. 463 (1966) (dissenting)

    Granted, Stewart’s speaking in Constitutional terms and the the publisher certainly has a right to bowdlerize Twain’s work, but the underlying logic still applies. This is no different than the Soviets airbrushing fallen political rivals from official photos – it’s a rewriting of history that only gets easier in the digital age.

    Thanks for the heartfelt and headfelt post.

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