Huckleberry Finn 2011?


Prof. Cornel West, Princeton University (source).

The media storm about altering Mark Twain's classic "Huckleberry Finn," published in 1885, to replace the "N word" with the term "slave" has sparked debate amongst scholars. How can we teach our children about bygone days, if sharing creative works includes using offensive language in today's vernacular?

I am aware that some of my fellow Sciblings (Greg Laden, Uncertainty Principles), have already shared their views on this topic, and I had hesitated to do so until I read Prof. Cornel West's (Princeton University) Tweet on this very topic (yes, I do follow him on Twitter). It is, in a word, brilliant:

@CornelWest Cornel West
Huck Finn is a FUNKY text b/c tells the truth about America. Don't deodorize it for the reality-denying audience of contemporary America.

I am not qualified, in any way, to offer a learned opinion about the historical use of language in creative works. Further, I do not advocate use of pejorative language in today's vernacular - ever. However, I have recently discovered Google's Ngram Viewer which allows one to measure use of terms in published books over centuries - since 1500, in fact. I can comment of the frequency of language use with this innovative tool.



So, remembering that this American classic was published in 1885, consider the frequency of the use of proposed "replacement" with the term slave, with all of its negative associations, of the original term of the infamous "N word".

These analyses show that use of the term "slave" peaked around 1860 (no surprise), and then rapidly diminished. In contrast, use of the "N word" has seen several peaks, first at around 1860, then at about 1940 and at about 1970. It is a curious difference of how writers choose their terms in their books. I wonder - does it make sense to alter an American classic in literature, and add to the published use of the term "slave"?

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Huck Finn has always been bowdlerised. When I was a kid, I had a copy that left out all the unpleasantness unsuitable for a Young Gentleman.

But when my daughter was 6 I read her the unexpurgated version, and we talked it through, N-word and all. I explained how words are used to denigrate and to marginalise people who have no power but might become a threat (in simpler terms!). Right now, she is in no doubt about what is happening to Muslims, atheists and gays. This may be the reason why it is being bowdlerised now.

I don't like editing language in order to match history with today's political needs. Too Orwellian to me.

BTW, those peaks probably mean different uses of the word. In the 70's there were many books from the other side of the coin, i.e. the evil whiteys used it on the good blacks.

By Lassi Hippeläinen (not verified) on 08 Jan 2011 #permalink

Historical works should be read in their proper context, and current differences in thought should be dealt with appropriately.
I remember being offended as a Jew when Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice was taught in the 9th grade. Its offensiveness wasn't mentioned when I was in school, but the play is still being taught now. Teachers try to deal with the offensiveness, but don't do so very well (after all, it IS Shakespeare!) -- I discussed this with an English teaching colleague -- she wasn't aware that one of the tragedies of the play was Shylock's daughter being converted to Christianity, and thus being dead to the Jewish community. I doubt Shakespeare viewed any of it as a tragedy, since he never saw or met a Jew. All Jews were expelled from England in 1290, and couldn't return until the 18th and 19th centuries.
So the only answer is education and more education -- especially more education of teachers and teachers-to-be on multi-cultural and historical issues. And not just those of the approved minorities (black, Hispanic, Native American and Asian), but other minorities as well.

By Natalie Sera (not verified) on 08 Jan 2011 #permalink