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Book News Friday: “Huck” Still Getting Whitewashed (and Is That So Bad?), “Babe” Creator Dies, and More

  • In Memoriam: Dick King-Smith, the beloved children's author whose works include The Sheep Pig (the basis for the film Babe), among many books, passed away on January 4th at the age of 88.

    The Guardian offers a fitting remembrance. Meanwhile, in farms all across the world, pigs are moaning in his honor, "Baa-ram-ewe!"

  • Un-Sivil Action: The internets are still abuzz over that new edition of Mark Twain's Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, in which every instance of "the N-word" has been replaced by "slave" to make it more classroom-friendly. Despite the controversy, small-press publisher NewSouth is not only going ahead with publication of the book but, according to Publishers Weekly, has even "increase[d] their print run from the initial 7,500 to 10,000."

    In an excerpt from his introduction to the book, editor Alan Gribben explains his reasoning:

    We may applaud Twain’s ability as a prominent American literary realist to record the speech of a particular region during a specific historical era, but abusive racial insults that bear distinct connotations of permanent inferiority nonetheless repulse modern-day readers. Twain’s two books do not deserve ever to join that list of literary “classics” he once humorously defined as those “which people praise and don’t read,” yet the long-lofty status of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn has come under question in recent decades....As a notoriously commercial writer who watched for every opportunity to enlarge the mass market for his works, he presumably would have been quick to adapt his language if he could have foreseen how today’s audiences recoil at racial slurs in a culturally altered country.

    Much of the furor over this edition amounts to shrieking the knee-jerk tune, "Censorship! Thought police! Political correctness run amok!" The question I'm not hearing often enough is: Does he have a point?The question I'm not hearing often enough is: Does he have a point?

    Huckleberry Finn remains one of the most-banned books in school libraries due to the many uses of That One Word. And it's such a "bad word" that almost none of us can bring ourselves to use it, instead using ridiculous euphemisms like "the N-word" — which, as comedian Louis CK noted, conjurs the actual word in the mind of the reader yet attempts to absolve the writer of the crime of using it. I don't know a single white person who doesn't at least pause for the length of a hiccup before using "the N-word" even when quoting a song lyric (and sometimes they just substitute a similar-sounding word like "ninja"). Among all the possible pejoratives one can use to insult another person, That One Word stands tall as the absolute worst.

    Gribben explains he doesn't want to neuter the impact of Huckleberry Finn (or Tom Sawyer, for that matter, although the earlier work only uses That One Word four times), but that he wants to make sure the book continues to be read and studied in classrooms by removing the one and only obstacle that is constantly cited as the sole reason for its exclusion.

    Of course, it's a big obstacle — but is it a necessary one? Plenty have argued, quite persuasively, that the importance of reading Huckleberry Finn in schools comes from the discussion of race its provokes. Should we appeal to the lowest common denominator and nullify those discussions so that America's ugly past doesn't have to be confronted head-on in a classroom?

    And yet, the anti-slavery message is so strong that it will surely reach through regardless of the language. The unexpurgated versions still exist; if a child falls in love with the novel (as so many readers do when they encounter it), it stands to reason that the "real" version will be read in time. There are plenty of classics that are initially presented to children in abridged versions, in the hopes that they will return to the original work as older readers. Why is this different?

    Contrary opinions abound across the internets, of course. Noted film critic Roger Ebert tweeted, "I'd rather be called a N***** than a Slave." He was promptly shouted down by some of his 300,000 followers, one of whom pointed out that Ebert, as a white man, is unlikely to be called either. (He later tweeted, "You know, this is very true. I'll never be called a N***** *or* a Slave, so I should have shut the **** up.")

    The New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani weighed in:

    Haven’t we learned by now that removing books from the curriculum just deprives children of exposure to classic works of literature? Worse, it relieves teachers of the fundamental responsibility of putting such books in context — of helping students understand that “Huckleberry Finn” actually stands as a powerful indictment of slavery (with Nigger Jim its most noble character), of using its contested language as an opportunity to explore the painful complexities of race relations in this country. To censor or redact books on school reading lists is a form of denial: shutting the door on harsh historical realities — whitewashing them or pretending they do not exist.

    She certainly makes some good points. (And then she writes things like, "Never mind that today nigger is used by many rappers, who have reclaimed the word from its ugly past." Her logic here is specious at best: Hurray, the N-Word is safe for all to use! Thanks, rap!!)

    Gribben himself notes in the introduction that these versions do exist. He's made no attempt to hide or eradicate them — merely to offer an admittedly sanitized alternative that will help expose young readers to this fundamental American classic without forcing it to run the gauntlet of objections due to inappropriate language. Which is the worse fate: schools teaching the cleaned-up version, or not teaching it altogether?

    I'm not saying I agree with Gribben's whitewashing. I certainly wouldn't buy or read his bowdlerization of one of my all-time favorite novels. But when I think about how many times Huckleberry Finn has been banned from schools across the nation — and how many kids haven't been exposed to it because of That One Word — I wonder if it turns out to be a necessary evil.

    (The preceding was an entirely unauthorized and unsolicited devil's-advocate opinion from one blogger, and does not reflect the opinions or views of Powell's management or employees, most of whom are more than likely to violently disagree with it.)

    For a smattering of reactions, check out pieces from the Huffington Post, Canada's The Tyee, the Atlanta Post, The Guardian, NPR, CNN, and many, many others.

  • Pogo Togo: Fans of the classic Walt Kelly comic strip "Pogo" have been waiting years for Fantagraphics Books to finally bring out its long-promised (announced back in 2007!) Complete Pogo series. Now it looks like the first book will really, truly, honestly appear in the fall. Rejoice!! (And keep your fingers crossed.)
  • Imagine This: Portland Center Stage is dipping back into the literary well with its next production, an update of Molière's The Imaginary Invalid, described as a very timely-sounding "skewering of a health care crisis from an entirely different century."

    The curtain rises January 11th and the show runs through February 6th. Click here for more information and to buy tickets.

  • Happy Friday: Nothing seals our Friday with a smile like a blogger writing about how much she loves Powell's, calling it a "magical palace of books" and adding:

    Seriously, you need to go to this place before you die. Preferably several million times.

    It's enough to warm the cockles of our bookish hearts in the midst of the rainy January chill. Happy weekend!

÷ ÷ ÷

Chris Bolton co-created the all-ages webcomic Smash, which will soon be published by Candlewick Press, and created the comedy series Wage Slaves. His short story "The Red Room" was published in Portland Noir from Akashic Books.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Portland Noir (Akashic Noir)
    Used Trade Paper $8.50

  2. Babe New DVD $13.94
  3. Mark Twain's Adventures of Tom...
    New Trade Paper $24.95
  4. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn... New Hardcover $9.95

5 Responses to "Book News Friday: “Huck” Still Getting Whitewashed (and Is That So Bad?), “Babe” Creator Dies, and More"

    Michael Pemulis January 7th, 2011 at 4:34 pm

    I find the following words and phrase offensive: zesty, gobbled, gustily, enormity (for enormousness), bemused (for amused), fait accompli. Please excise the preceding, from all texts, as I can not appreciate or tolerate the writing that contains these words. I will be writing, phoning, texting and Tweeting all elected officials until this matter is resolved. For the children, please.

    DeniseB January 7th, 2011 at 11:30 pm

    Some of can only dream of that "magical palace of books"! Y'all's little bookstore is the foundation of my vacation planning! Someday...*sigh*...

    dotdotdot January 8th, 2011 at 12:26 pm

    The Huck Finn debate is a really interesting one. The blog that seems to be doing the best coverage/framing of the debate is Oz and Ends, in my opinion, and I especially like his "rules for sorting through the noise."

    ks January 9th, 2011 at 8:56 am

    I guess my main objection to the the new "PC" version of Huckleberry Finn is the overly simplistic, cut-and-paste manner in which it was (apparently) done. "Slave" is not synonymous with "nigger". Imagine replacing all instances of the word slave in the KJV bible with nigger. Both words have meanings and while "the n-word" is archaic the people it described had, and have, an identity beyond their status as enslaved men and women. Reading Mark Twain should remind us of the fact that these people were, unlike slaves in other societies, racially distinct from their masters and were still being persecuted for their differences a century after slavery ended in this country. Other than that, sure, replace outmoded terms with words modern young people can understand, do it with Shakespeare, with Moses and with Mark Twain but try to keep the original meaning in tact.

    Chris Bolton January 10th, 2011 at 12:39 pm

    @dotdotdot: That's a great blog post with a lot of good ideas, namely this one: "If you say that it's appropriate to use the 'n word' in classrooms, but completely avoid using it in your own essay, then you lose a point."

    @ks: I share those concerns as well. I wish the editor hadn't simply done what appears to be a find-and-replace of "nigger" for "slave," but had instead investigated each instance and replaced it with a contextually suitable euphemism. On the other hand, maybe it would have been better simply to black out all the uses of "nigger" and just make it a redacted book "safe" for schools. Or not...

    @Michael: Yes, because what's happening with this new edition of Huckleberry Finn is, random words that are arbitrarily offensive to only one or two people are being replaced on a whim. Spot on.

    @Denise: You're welcome anytime!

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