Thursday, January 6, 2011

Huck Finn (with update)

So in Huckleberry Finn Land, they're taking out the "n" word and replacing it with "slave" (and changing "Injun" to "Indian," is what I hear). Hmm. The idea, as it's explained, is to create an elementary school level version of the Huck Finn story without distracting the young students with a discussion of the "n" word in general, and why their anti-hero Huck is using it in particular. It makes sense, right? Sigh...

This commentator makes a good point - that we study literature both because it's brilliant and because it gives us a view into a time in history that we otherwise wouldn't know. Classics are both classic and tied to their time periods.

The purist in me prefers the unabridged version. The realist in me acknowledges comments from Twain scholars (Mark Twain being one of my favorite authors) who say that primary and even secondary school teachers have opted out of teaching Finn because of the awkward conversations it provokes. I'd rather see Mr. Clemens read. Right? But - at the cost of a major part of the book?? because doesn't it cost the book, to take Huck's real friendship with Jim and then contrast it with that ugly "n" word that was Jim's societal label? and that's just for starters, when it comes to editing a classic like "Huckleberry Finn."

It reminds me of studying "My Name Is Asher Lev" in high school. I loved that book. It is by Chaim Potok, and is about a young boy growing up in New York and grappling with his dual, at-times contrasting identities of artist and Hasidic Jew. I don't remember why I loved that book so much, though it may have had something to do with my less-obvious but still-conflicting existence of being an aspiring writer with stoic Northern European roots (where flights of fancy are just not understood). (Thank goodness for that touch of Irish and Cherokee - and Viking - blood in me, all of which give permission to sparks of passion beyond practical common sense.)

In class discussion, my teacher stated that - regardless of quality - "Asher Lev" would never be considered a classic because it did not have a universal theme. It's a specific story about a specific theme, and would not stand the test of time (he said). I was dumbfounded. That didn't seem fair. So, no matter how well written a novel is, it can't be considered a classic if it focuses on one person's unique cultural and religious struggles?

I do think my teacher was wrong - would have to re-read "Asher Lev" to see if he was wrong about that novel in particular. I do appreciate the above commentator's point of view - that classics give us both something timeless and something about that time. And with "Huck Finn," I wonder if eliminating the "n" word takes away from both aspects of that classic in particular.

UPDATE: I received an email yesterday about this posting from Rosa Sow of (a website that attempts to gather diverse viewpoints on a particular issue and condense them in one synopsis), chatting with me about this post and then asking me to consider embedding the following video into the post. Sure, why not? Though I think it's a really shortened version of the whole argument ... it does give some interesting soundbites, if you're looking for a quick summary. (And while I'm at it, these two letters in the New York Times - by writers unhappy with the change - are really interesting too, in that they point out (a) it sanitation is the goal, you also need to edit out the thievery and mayhem, and (b) "slave" is the least optimal word to use as replacement since a major point in the book is that Jim is finally a free man.)

Here's the video:

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