He knew the difference, but it’s less certain whether the folks at Montgomery’s NewSouth Books do. Next month, the firm is publishing a new edition of Mr. Clemens’s—you may know him better as Mark Twain—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in one volume, heavy on the edition. Under the aegis of Dr. Alan Gribben, the new version seeks to “eliminate two racial slurs that have increasingly formed a barrier to these works for teachers, students, and general readers.” That would be the words “nigger”, used in Huck’s tale 219 times by the good doctor’s count, and “Injun”, appearing 84 times in both novels.
In the NewSouth adaptations, “Injun” will be replaced by the word “Indian”, which the editor acknowledges is a misnomer but will help retire the “antiquated and insulting word.” Old fans of Tom Sawyer may take some time to get used to seeing the town villain’s name rendered as “Indian Joe”, but Dr. Gribben thinks it’ll be worth it.
Likewise, “nigger” will be replaced by “slave”. Dr. Gribben says the synonym “expresses the cultural racism that Twain sought to convey, as in Huck Finn’s report to Aunt Sally Phelps in Chapter 32 that a steamboat explosion had ‘killed a slave,’ to which she responds heartlessly, ‘Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.’” He justifies the global change thusly: “Although the text loses some of the caustic sting that the n-word carries, that price seems small compared to the revolting effect that the more offensive word has on contemporary readers.’”
The thing is, Mark Twain meant to use that offensive word.
Unlike Dr. Gribben, I’m no scholar on the subject, but from what I’ve read of Twain and his work, he was adept and insistent on deploying the caustic sting wherever necessary. Some think of the whitemaned patriarch as a stand-up comic with a flair for one-liners, but Mark Twain was also a deadly satirist of serious intent, and he was meticulous in his language. Through Huckleberry Finn, he used his art to confront his contemporary readers with the ugly dimensions of institutionalized racism in America.
Omitting “nigger”, one of the worst words in our lexicon, from Twain’s book will not remove the need to understand why that word is so toxic. Many of our Congressional representatives tried a similar end-around last week, when they began the 112th Congress with a reading of the U.S. Constitution, staged to symbolize that every action to be undertaken this session would have a grounding in that original document.
However, they didn’t read the original document.
Instead of the Founders’ unexpurgated words, the representatives chose to read aloud only the unamended part of the Constitution, which means they skipped over unpleasant codicils such as Article 2, Section 1, wherein, in order to form a more perfect union, an African slave was made equivalent to three-fifths of a human being.
Reading that section, and the later amendments that removed its awful stigma, would not have condoned the concept, but would have reminded us that the Constitution is a living document, designed, as Chief Justice John Marshall put it, “to be adapted to the various crises of human affairs.” All of its words matter.
Beyond omission of language lurks the commission of language, which could be significant evidence in the trial of Jared Loughner, an Arizonan alleged to have shot a U.S. Representative and killed a federal judge last weekend. Which words could spur one from passive delusion to active homicide? Thomas Jefferson’s “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”? Sarah Palin’s “Don’t retreat, instead, reload.”?
The words Loughner committed on MySpace and YouTube are hard to comprehend; he seemed troubled by government brainwashing and the gold standard for currency, but he said he was a mind controller. Words used by his college classmates to describe such rhetoric included “mentally unstable”.
An acquaintance told ABC News Loughner had met one of his future victims in person years ago: “I mean, he met Gabrielle Giffords once in ‘07 and told me he asked her some question that made absolutely no sense to me, but he said, ‘I can’t believe she doesn’t understand it. Politicians just don’t get it.’” Last Saturday, at a public meeting similar to the one at which he had talked to the Congresswoman in 2007, the 22 year-old allegedly walked up behind her and put a bullet through her brain.
In the aftermath, more words. Local sheriff Clarence Dupnik stated that Arizona had become “the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.” Fox News Channel founder Roger Ailes dialed his news readers back a bit, saying, “I told all of our guys, shut up, tone it down, make your argument intellectually.” Then there was Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander, who would rather dispense with words altogether, telling CNN, “You’re picking out a particular incident. Well, I think the way to get away from it is for you not to be talking about it.”
Current events suggest we should be careful with words, but give old Mr. Clemens the last one: “Language is a treacherous thing, a most unsure vehicle, and it can seldom arrange descriptive words in such a way that they will not inflate the facts—by help of the reader’s imagination, which is always ready to take a hand and work for nothing, and do the bulk of it at that.”
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.