Craig Boehman, January 19, 2011
Open Letter to NewSouth Books
In regards to censoring a Mark Twain classic
January 5, 2010
Dear Randall Williams and Suzanne La Rosa, co-owners of NewSouth Books;
Censorship in any form, however benign in appearance, however easier on the ears and eyes, however sincere in intention – violates the natural endowment of free expression. Your publication of Mark Twain's classic in censored form will send the wrong signals to the publishing industry, the wrong message to young readers in public schools. Enlightened minds are not nourished by Orwellian safeguards.
On your website you state: “A new edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, forthcoming from NewSouth Books in mid-February, does more than unite the companion boy books in one volume, as the author had intended.”
Let's examine the last part of your proclamation – “as the author had intended.” As a Mark Twain enthusiast, I highly doubt he would have intended for you to take it upon yourselves to censor his work. True, he had intended to publish the two stories in one volume. But this doesn't grant you the moral authority to step in and replace the N-word with 'slave' (including their plural companions). In effect, you're claiming he would have intended for you to sanitize racial slurs on behalf of two ethnic groups so that you could publish his two stories in one volume.
Secondly, making use of Twain scholar, Dr. Alan Gribben, and his “preemptive censorship” doctrine doesn't excuse yourselves from the fact that you and your publishing company have now embarked on your own rafting adventure down the Mighty Mississippi of Censorship. According to Dr. Gribben's explanation, he can no longer bring himself to utter the word N-word (as it is not comfortable for him) during readings of Twain therefor justifying an assuasive form of censorship. As he explains:
“Through a succession of firsthand experiences, this editor [Dr. Alan Gribben] gradually concluded that an epithet-free edition of Twain’s books is necessary today. For nearly forty years I have led college classes, bookstore forums, and library reading groups in detailed discussions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in California, Texas, New York, and Alabama, and I always recoiled from uttering the racial slurs spoken by numerous characters, including Tom and Huck. I invariably substituted the word “slave” for Twain’s ubiquitous n-word whenever I read any passages aloud. Students and audience members seemed to prefer this expedient, and I could detect a visible sense of relief each time, as though a nagging problem with the text had been addressed. Indeed, numerous communities currently ban Huckleberry Finn as required reading in public schools owing to its offensive racial language and have quietly moved the title to voluntary reading lists. The American Library Association lists the novel as one of the most frequently challenged books across the nation.”
While sincere and reasonable in his assertions, I would argue that most censorship begins with a sincere and reasonable discourse against language in order to maintain some level of personal comfort. In doing so the door is left wide open for the next book to be censored. And the next. But in NewSouth Book's case, your case – you're selling two birds in one tome. So I ask you, what's next?
NewSouth Book's other justification for publishing a censored version of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn seems redundant at best:
“At NewSouth, we saw the value in an edition that would help the works find new readers. If the publication sparks good debate about how language impacts learning or about the nature of censorship or the way in which racial slurs exercise their baneful influence, then our mission in publishing this new edition of Twain’s works will be more emphatically fulfilled.”
Are we to believe just because your publishing company is censoring a book that you're adding a new perspective on the issue of censorship or shedding light on the baneful influence of racial slurs? It's plain to see how sparking a good debate could be good PR in emphatically improving your profits, but intellectually speaking, you're bringing nothing new to the table but a censored book. Why should any new discussion about censorship and language caused directly by your publication not be traced back to the source of the commotion in the form of moral outrage? Mr. Williams and Miss La Rosa, you are contributing to the problem, not the solution.
In a time when everything Twain is a hot commodity, I ask that you do the right thing and restore Twain's words verbatim in his works as he originally intended. The profits that you may gain by circumventing the issue of censorship in some communities may only spurn a larger community of literature and Twain fans against you in the form of boycotts and negative press. On the contrary, NewSouth Books could be pioneering strategies in getting formerly banned books like Twain's back into schools. A forward could be penned in defense of free expression and how embracing it ultimately benefits a free society despite the existence of racial slurs lurking inside and outside the cover of a book. To share a nation's literary heritage with as many people that are willing to engage with it, unabridged, uncensored, is all a free society can really hope for.