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Tampering with Twain?

Published 6:10 pm, Wednesday, February 2, 2011
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Generally, after a movie hits the screen, an "unrated" or "uncut" version will hit stores to the delight of fans and enthusiasts. Those fans would likely scratch their heads about a new version of a Mark Twain novel that actually "cleans" up the language.

Twain wrote "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" more than 100 years ago in 1884. It is now 2011 and his work is still a focal point of controversy and even subject to edits. Recently, Alan Gribben, an English Professor at Auburn University, approached the publisher NewSouth Books with a proposition to change something.

"I think it is a grave mistake," Howard Benedict, New Canaan High School's AP English teacher, said. "It does more injury to our willingness to discuss race honestly."

As many Twain scholars and English aficionados will note, "Huck Finn" has some colorful language representative of the southern and American culture of the time. The main characters use the word "nigger," a current derogatory racial slur that was commonplace in that era, several times throughout the novel, 219 times to be exact. Gribben and NewSouth have replaced that word with "slave" and also substituted "injun" with "Indian."

"This isn't a translation," Evan Remley, a New Canaan High School English teacher, said. "It is basically a search and replace. My initial reaction is that it is a terrible idea."

Remley argued that there is a very potent danger in changing language.

"A lot of bad things happen when people attempt to do that. This is nothing new here," he added.

Remley has a point. Twain's work has been repeatedly banned from schools, bookstores and libraries all over the country since its publication, yet somehow always emerges unscathed. While it is fiction, it is essentially considered to be historical fiction thanks to the historical context and backdrop. Specifically, that word has a place in history because of its use in everyday life and in language according to Benedict.

"African Americans have a proud history," Benedict said. "But that word says more about the Caucasian American if you will, than it does about African American."

Benedict stressed that the use of the word, in a disrespectful tone by white people during the slavery era, reveals so much about the history of racism in this country.

"It is more a matter of pride and strength to own the injuries of one's history," Benedict said. "Owning up to our mistakes and, in particular, teaching it to our students is the key to moving forward."

Still, the word is sensitive in nature and perhaps makes everyone a little uneasy. New Canaan teachers explained how important it is to preface the teaching of "Huck Finn" with some background and context so that they might be better prepared to discuss the culture.

"That word is tied to that society," Kristene Brown, another New Canaan English teacher said. "It is supposed to be uncomfortable. If it wasn't then it would say something about our society today."

GerShun Avilez, an assistant professor of English and African American Studies at Yale University, agrees with Brown's statements.

"I think that is actually a valuable conversation that you miss out on having when the word is gone," Avilez said. "It is OK to be uncomfortable. If you are uncomfortable then it means you are thinking. That is what great art does."

At the same time though, Avilez understands the need to sometimes place certain works under an "umbrella of political correctness."

"It is just a reflection, not of Twain's moment, but of how we might be thinking now," Avilez said.

As many of these educators have pointed out though, this is nothing new. Literary works have been altered, abridged and translated to film several times before. According to Time Magazine, CBS went as far as deleting any and all references to slavery in a televised version of "Huck Finn" in 1955. They even had a white actor portray Jim, an important character from the novel who also happens to be a slave. Going even further, the characters of Finn and Tom Sawyer have been sanitized for Disney in the past, effectively making Twain's characters a part of children's literatures. So then the question arises, how young is too young to start teaching the real works of Twain?

"I think older would be better," Heidi Acosta, NCHS English Department chairman, said. "We wait until the 11th grade."

Remley and his colleagues agreed simply based on the difficulty of the language.

"The dialect alone is very complex," Mike McAteer, another New Canaan High English teacher said. "Even a historian has trouble going through the allusions in that novel."

While it might be considered difficult for some students, one particular student, Ellen Trinklein, the opinions editor of the NCHS Courant, has tackled the issue in an editorial for the high school paper.

"Horrible as the n-word may be," Trinklein writes, "by ignoring it the new edition of Huckleberry Finn attempts to ignore important issues, resulting in students who will be kept from understanding the unfortunate truth of our country's racial history."

Still, even though certain educators and students might not agree with the change, they understand the reasons for it. One of those reasons is to simply start a discussion.

"We didn't undertake this lightly," Suzanne La Rosa, co-founder and publisher of NewSouth Books, told The New York Times. "If our publication fosters good discussion about how language affects learning and certainly the nature of censorship, then difficult as it is likely to be, it's a good thing."

McAteer believes that the market will ultimately decide if this new version will become significant.

"The challenge is that we have these national impacts," he said. "We are products of the present; that is the hard part. We can explain a lot of the use of the word because we do not have an intense feeling about it like back then. Sometimes we think terms are so absolute."

But what about the discussion? The alteration of one word has stirred a national conversation about race and literature for the time being. The dialogue could be considered a good thing for now. But the importance of that word reminds everyone about a past many find shameful in this country; a past where prejudice and unequal rights was the norm.

"Some student's believe racism is no longer prevalent today," Remley said. "Altering culture and history will just add justification to that false belief."