11 January 2011

Bowdlerizing Mark Twain

Next month, Alan Gribben, a professor at Auburn University in Alabama, will publish a critical edition of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Normally this would not raise any eyebrows or hackles except for the fact that this time he has "improved" the text and made it more "accessible" by replacing all instances of nigger (hereinafter "the N-word") with slave (or runaway slave) and injun with Indian (this last emendation has passed without comment, as far as I know, all the attention is focused on the N-word).

I caught an interview with Gribben on NPR's "Talk of the Nation" last week where he justified his actions on two grounds:

Mark Twain was constantly returning to his work to edit it - his Autobiography is notorious for this. In fact, Twain said "[t]he difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug." So, according to Gribben, he is justified in determining the "right word" for modern audiences (perhaps channeling Twain's ghost?). If there were two or more readings of the text (as often happens with, e.g., Medieval manuscripts), an editor would be perfectly justified in choosing one interpretation over another (though they would be called upon to justify it). But here we have no disputed texts, no ambiguity about what word Twain thought appropriate (he uses it 219 times!), and Gribben is just plain, flat-out wrong, wrong, wrong to change it.

The second justification is that slave is a word with as many, and as powerfully negative connotations as the N-word. This last assertion is so wrong on so many levels it deserves no comment. While I don't believe anyone would enjoy being called a "slave," I think the reactions were you to go to an African-American community and call someone that would be bemusement and/or confusion rather than anger. On the other hand, were you to walk up to someone and say, "You lousy N-word!," the reactions would be quite different.

Marcia Alesan Dawkins wrote an essay at Truthdig, "10 Reasons Why the Slurs Should Stay in ‘Huck Finn’", which lays out the case quite eloquently. I reproduce here just the headings:

1. It’s Mark Twain.
2. Tampering with literatureis a censorship and it’s a bad idea.
3. Erasing racial epithets doesn’t erase race or racism.
4. It eliminates teachable moments.
5. Freedom of choice.
6. There were other options. Gribben could’ve rewritten the story from a different perspective.
7. You can’t fight censorship with censorship.
8. We’re not talking about the words that will replace nigger and Injun.
9. Offensive terms are being invented and popularized right now.
10. It’s coming from the “New South.”

We're back to the status quo antebellum

The fifty years between the Second World War and the collapse of the Soviet Union were an unprecedented era of political comity in American politics. An epoch when the business class played "nice" with the working/middle classes in the face of the Communist "threat." When the threat became moot, the gloves came off again, and we can see the results in today's economic debacles, persistent economic malaise, and the unrelenting destruction of the middle class and a society based on the equitable distribution of wealth.

Anyone with a modicum of familiarity with American history knows that violent, over-the-top rhetoric was the norm from the beginning of the Republic. One of the most striking things brought out in Sean Wilentz's The Rise of American Democracy is the alienness of the notion that two (or more) opposing views can coexist in a functioning polity. The Founders envisioned a ruling elite that would dispute means but not ends; the quarrels would be gentlemanly disagreements, resolved amicably. And even the subsequent Democracy of the Jacksonian Era didn't envision permanent political parties representing the varied interests of the country. As a consequence, the politics of the time vilified the opposition as "traitors" and "enemies of the Republic," and it wasn't uncommon for political rallies to devolve into brawls.

I bring this up, of course, in reaction to what happened in Tucson on Saturday (Jan. 8), when a paranoid schizophrenic let loose on a political rally, killing at least five people (including a 9-year-old girl) and critically wounding the district's US Representative (Gabrielle Gifford took a bullet through the brain but appears to be doing remarkably well, all things considered).

The Left-leaning blogs and bloviators have been running with the idea that the admittedly poisonous Republican and Tea Party rhetoric of the last few years is to blame for Jared Loughner's actions; the Right wing is defensively (and at times hysterically) claiming that Loughner is a "lone gunman," a crazed individual who's actually a Leftie and drug addict.

Neither side is entirely right nor entirely wrong. To the Left's credit, they have a point that a political culture that tolerates candidates sponsoring a day where people can shoot M-16s at targets of his opponent encourages extreme, possible violent actions, and it might be time to tone the rhetoric down. To the Right's credit, Jared Loughner is not a Tea Party or Republican activist. Unlike al Qaida or the Red Brigades, there was no conspiracy to kill a government official. He really is a paranoic whose fantasies were readily fed by the crap spewing from Right wing outlets like Fox (e.g., Beck, Bachmann, Palin, etc.).

I think a sane and refreshingly cogent interpretation of what happened can be found in Harry Shearer's HuffPo post from Jan. 10. As he writes:

This country has had toxic political rhetoric since its birth pangs, and there has undeniably followed in the past two centuries an occasional outbreak of political violence. But now we're being told that toxic political rhetoric is dangerous, because of its possible effect on the less rational, more mentally unhinged folks among us. So, maybe it's time to ask this question: Why are they among us?

Loughner had been expelled from college and rejected by the military for mental instability, and yet he was able to buy 30-round ammo clips from the neighborhood Wal-Mart.

There's no simple explanation for what happened Saturday, nor is there a simple solution to the problems it pointed up but I think Shearer has hit upon an important factor that's being ignored.

03 January 2011

2010 - Last Year's Best Reads (part 2)

Bookwise, the second half of 2010 proved pretty good. My love affair with Sylvia Townsend Warner continued, I discovered an interesting new author, and boned up on my American history. As usual, most of these books have some sort of write up on my GoodReads site.

On the Fiction Shelf (in chronological order):

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson. Outside of “The Lottery,” I’d never read any Jackson but was intrigued by a review of this book in The New York Review of Books, and was very entertained by this quirky look at a decidedly odd pair of sisters. At the same time, I watched a film called “Spider Babies,” with Lon Chaney, that was similar and also (surprisingly) good. Both recommended.

Lorna Doone, R. Blackmore. I picked up a copy of this book at the library for 25 cents after watching an adaptation of it. This is a really good book, far better than I could have hoped.

Mock’s Curse, T.F. Powys, and Selected Stories, Sylvia Townsend Warner. Two short-story collections by two of my favorite authors.

Journey to Aprilioth, Songs from the Drowned Lands, The Sarsen Witch, Eileen Kernaghan. I first read Aprilioth when I was a teen-ager (early teens) and always remembered it as a really good book so, in one of my occasional fits of nostalgia, I scrounged around and got used copies of it and the subsequent sequels (which I hadn’t read). Aprilioth was about as good as I remembered it. I didn’t think the other two books were quite as successful but they were still good and I enjoyed reading them. The setting is early Bronze Age Europe: Aprilioth recounts the adventures of a young British Celt who sets out on a journey to the legendary city of Aprilioth (on the island of Thera in the Mediterranean), the last settlement of Atlantis; Songs is a series of linked stories about the drowning of Atlantis; and The Sarsen Witch is about a young woman in the generation after Aprilioth, when the Goddess-worshipping tribes of Britain were falling back against the onslaught of God-worshipping invaders.

I'd like to get Kernaghan's Winter on the Plain of Ghosts, which is set in Harappan India.

Gods of Night, Mere Mortals, Lost Souls, David Mack. David Mack is one of the best Star Trek novelists out there. This may sound light faint praise but it really isn’t. Mack has a knack for vivid description and writing a compelling story. Not great literature by any means but if you’re a Trekkie and/or looking for some brain candy to read, this is highly recommended.

And, speaking of Star Trek, another serendipitous find was Night of the Living Trekkies, Kevin Anderson and Sam Stall. I was apprised of this little gem from a GoodReads review. Normally, I wouldn’t bother with another entry in the latest vampire-zombie novel genre but it is Trek and it was recommended by a man whose opinion I trust. My Uncle Russ, who died a couple of years ago and was the family’s Uber-Trekkie (I’m just an apprentice), would have loved this.

Kraken, China MiĆ©ville. I liked this book more than MiĆ©ville’s The City and The City, which I also read during the latter half of the year. It’s fast paced, baroque and over the top.

The Marquise of O-, Heinrich von Kleist. Von Kleist is a little known (to English speakers) German author, which is unfortunate because he’s very, very good. As I noted in my GoodReads’ review, the translators managed to preserve the Teutonic flavor of the writing without sacrificing readability for Anglophones.

The Corner That Held Them and The Music at Long Verney, Sylvia Townsend Warner. Ooooh, I get goose bumps this woman is so good. Read her!

On the Nonfiction Shelf (also in chronological order):

Aurelian, Alaric Watson, and Diocletian, Stephen Williams. Routledge Press has a whole series on the Roman Emperors and in a perfect world, I’d have the resources to buy them all.

Empires and Barbarians, Peter Heather. A brilliant look at the Roman Empire and the barbarians along its borders. You may not agree entirely with his thesis but his description of society of both sides of the frontier is fascinating.

Dinosaur Odyssey, Scott Sampson. A fascinating look at dinosaurs and the worlds they lived in. It’s probably a bit advanced for very young people but I think it would be OK for the 13+ crowd.

God Is Not One, Stephen Prothero. This is an interesting discussion about the various traditions of the world’s religions and makes the case (a good one, I think) that our conceptions of “God” are not the same and that the drive to create an ecumenical faith is misguided, at best.

The Rise of American Democracy, Sean Wilentz, and Disunion!, Elizabeth Varon. These two volumes were the best of the American history books I read, particularly Wilentz’s look at the American polity up to the Civil War. Varon’s book was more focused on the anti-slavery campaigns but both are recommended to anyone who wants to understand how this country developed.

Shakespeare, Sex, and Love, Stanley Wells. This is a provocative look at sexuality in Shakespeare and is prompting a read (or reread) of several plays.

That’s it for last year.

The new year promises some equally good reads, including the concluding volume of the Malazan Book of the Fallen.