I love books. I have too many (if that’s possible) and I particularly like the classics, like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the Adventures of Tom Sawyer. My very old copies of these books among others, sit behind glass in an old barrister bookcase in a place of honor. The reason I like the classics is because they give us a glimpse into what was.
So, it was with great sadness and shock that I read recently in the New York Times and Publishers Weekly that an editor, Alan Gribben, a reported Mark Twain scholar at Auburn University took it upon himself to change the written word of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain). He struck all mention of the word “nigger” and “injun Joe” in the books and replaced them with the words slave and indian. Why any “scholar” would think that these words are interchangeable is beyond my comprehension. Sometime in February the new politically correct, whitewashed version of these books will be published by NewSouth Books for student/classroom use.
Gribben said he felt a need for this change because many teachers felt “uncomfortable” teaching this book to students because of the words “nigger” and “injun”. Well, we should all feel uncomfortable with these words but the teachers are missing the boat on making it a teachable moment in explaining to kids just what it was like over 100 years ago. It was not a pretty time in our history of how blacks were treated, whitewashing the words does not wipeout what was done. This is not like the re-make of an old movie, this is distorting history to make things look better than they really were. This is falsifying Mark Twain’s words so the teachers of today can feel more comfortable. Here is a passage from the forward page of my old Huckleberry Finn book written by the author:
“In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods. South-Western dialect; the ordinary Pike County dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but pains-takingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech. I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding. The Author.”
Since both books are in the public domain and long past their copyright, Gribben can make changes and the publisher, NewSouth, can print tons of copies and make big bucks distributing to schools where the books have been banned or simply not taught because of fear of reality. In the mean time, kids everywhere will still want to gets their hands on the original because it has been “banned” or changed, just like I did as a kid with Lolita and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. And of course, maybe they won’t understand it as well as if a teacher had taken the time to explain the history, culture and vernacular of 1884 and how far we have come.
But, I’m sure for NewSouth Books this is just the tip of the iceberg. I can see them with dollar signs in their eyes now, going after Uncle Tom’s Cabin and turning it into a condo.