Bowdlerizing Huckleberry Finn: Cowardice does what Aunt Sally could not

bowdlerize
to expurgate (as a book) by omitting or modifying parts considered vulgar; to modify by abridging, simplifying, or distorting in style or content. An eponymous word referring to Thomas Bowdler, publisher in 1818 of
The Family Shakespeare, in Ten Volumes; in which nothing is added to the original text; but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family. [More on this helpful fellow in the notes at the end of the post.]

Huckleberry-Finn-cover painting.jpg

[Cover painting from the HarperFestival 2005 edition of Huckleberry Finn.]

There has been a great deal of commentary this past week about NewSouth Books‘ plan to publish an edition of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in which all the instances of nigger are replaced with slave (and Injun with Indian). It’s the work of Professor Alan Gribben at Auburn University, who says that “After a number of talks, I was sought out by local teachers, and to a person they said we would love to teach [Tom Sawyer] and Huckleberry Finn, but we feel we can’t do it anymore. In the new classroom, it’s really not acceptable.” It’s not just some public school teachers motivating Gribben; he too shies at the word in the classroom: ”I found myself right out of graduate school at Berkeley not wanting to pronounce that word when I was teaching either Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer,” he said. ”And I don’t think I’m alone… I just had the idea to get us away from obsessing about this one word, and just let the stories stand alone.”

What betrayal of a writer can be worse, than to change his words? And not just any words, but one particular word that occurs 219 times in Huckleberry Finn and is central to the book’s meaning. Twain shows Huckleberry Finn as an ignorant boy, a product of his time and place without pretense. He, and the other characters, speak as people of their age and place in life would have spoken; in fact, the second of Twain’s two short prefatory admonitions deals with speech quite firmly:

EXPLANATORY

IN this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro
dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the
ordinary “Pike County” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last.
The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork;
but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of
personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.

I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would
suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not
succeeding.

THE AUTHOR.

The words used are carefully chosen to be authentic, and to show us the attitudes of the characters. When Jim first appears, Huck describes him as “Miss Watson’s big nigger, named Jim”. As the story goes along, with Jim a runaway slave rafting down the river with Huck Finn, the boy’s sense of Jim changes. This is plainly expressed in chapter 31, when Jim’s been caught; Huck is tempted to save him though he knows he’ll certainly go to hell for helping a runaway to escape his lawful master.

…I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and
I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then
says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll GO to hell”…

It’s a change of heart, not of mind; Huck doesn’t decide that slavery is wrong but that Jim is his friend. Jim’s still a slave but no longer a nigger, no longer some inferior being beyond the pale of friendship.

Professor Gribben has chosen to replace nigger with slave, but the two words aren’t at all equivalent. Slave is a legal term describing a human being who is legally deemed to be property of another. It might apply to a person of any race, and certainly has, historically. It is a condition, not an immutable element of identity. A slave can be freed, as some occasionally were by their masters, and the children born to freed slaves are free themselves. All slaves in the US were freed in 1865 by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. But to most whites in the 19th C. South, a nigger was a nigger, whether he was a slave or free. If some French white man who’d been captured and enslaved by the Turks (like Candide) had visited, he might have been described as a slave or ex-slave but never as a nigger.

Huck Finn’s evil father holds violent views on this very subject, and goes into them in detail when we first meet him.

“Oh, yes, this is a wonderful govment, wonderful. Why, looky here. There was a free nigger there from Ohio–a mulatter, most as white as a white man. … And what do you think? They said he was a p’fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything. And that ain’t the wust. They said he could VOTE when he was at home. Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to? It was ‘lection day, and I was just about to go and vote myself if I warn’t too drunk to get there; but when they told me there was a State in this country where they’d let that nigger vote, I drawed out. I says I’ll never vote agin. Them’s the very words I said; they all heard me; and the country may rot for all me–I’ll never vote agin as long as I live. And to see the cool way of that nigger–why, he wouldn’t a give me the road if I hadn’t shoved him out o’ the way. I says to the people, why ain’t this nigger put up at auction and sold?–that’s what I want to know. And what do you reckon they said? Why, they said he couldn’t be sold till he’d been in the State six months, and he hadn’t been there that long yet. There, now–that’s a specimen. They call that a govment that can’t sell a free nigger till he’s been in the State six months. Here’s a govment that calls itself a govment, and lets on to be a govment, and thinks it is a govment, and yet’s got to set stock-still for six whole months before it can take a hold of a prowling, thieving, infernal, white-shirted free nigger, and–“

How will this “free nigger” be described in the new version of Huck Finn? As a “freed slave”, I suppose. Try making that substitution in this passage and see how much difference it makes. “Freed slave” is a neutral phrase compared to the repetitive angry utterance of nigger.

We must presume that Professor Gribben does understand the difference between race— defined by unchangeable color, and legal condition—alterable by legal action. But he thinks that current unease over the word nigger justifies removing this word which is in fact the center of the book. Huck Finn is about nigger, it’s about deciding a person’s worth and status based on his color.

Twain was no fan of the farrago of falsehoods, taboos, and blind spots that make up much of “civilization”. He chooses as his protagonist a shiftless superstitious barely educated boy, who hates the prospect of being “sivilized” and having to wear shoes and not curse, the son of a violent drunk (“He used to lay drunk with the hogs in the tanyard, but he hain’t been seen in these parts for a year or more,” says another boy about Huck’s father)—and then he shows us this boy weighing the evidence of his eyes and heart vs. what he’s been taught about niggers, and choosing to honor the former. Even if it means he’ll burn in Hell, even if he has to take serious personal risk to get Jim away from those who’ve captured him. They have the law, and local “civilization” on their side. Twain doesn’t exactly say what Huck has on his side, that’s for the reader to figure out.

Huck’s final words to us, with which the book ends, are “I reckon I got to light out for the
Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.“ I can imagine the bitter smile of Huck’s creator hearing that, 126 years after he was brave enough to publish a book about nigger, we aren’t brave enough to figure out how to teach something that contains that word. So we’re going to sivilize it to suit us.

TWAIN, MARK, undated photo.jpg

[Undated photo of Samuel Clemens]

NOTES

According to some estimates, Huckleberry Finn is the fourth most banned book in the US. Mark Twain really had us pegged.

From the pen of Thomas Bowdler ((1754–1825):

“I acknowledge Shakespeare to be the world’s greatest dramatic poet, but regret that no parent could place the uncorrected book in the hands of his daughter, and therefore I have prepared the Family Shakespeare”

“Many words and expressions occur which are of so indecent a nature as to render it highly desirable that they should be erased.”

‘”If any word or expression is of such a nature that the first impression it excites is an impression of obscenity, that word ought not to be spoken nor written or printed ; and, if printed, it ought to be erased.”

Sample “bowdlerizations” of the texts:

Ophelia’s death in Hamlet is referred to as an accidental drowning, not a possible suicide.
Lady Macbeth’s “Out, Damned spot.” is changed to “Out, Crimson spot.”

The prostitute Doll Tearsheet is completely written out of Henry IV, Part 1.

Mercutio’s “the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon” is changed to “the hand of the dial is now upon the point of noon”

Juliet’s “Spread thy close curtain, love performing night” is changed to “. . . and come civil night”.

And so on…

It is not commonly known that Bowdler also prepared “family” editions of parts of the Old Testament and of Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, completing this edition just before his death in 1825. [this, quotations from Bowdler, and examples, from source]

Twain would have found confirmation for the hypocrisy of “civilization” in the fact that “[t]he editions were actually edited by Bowdler’s sister, Harriet, rather than by Thomas. However, they were published under Thomas Bowdler’s name, because a woman could not publicly admit that she understood Shakespeare’s racy passages.” [Wikipedia]

Let’s be niggardly with the n-word, but…

but…sometimes it can and should be said.

niggardly
stingy, sparing, parsimonious, e.g. “serving out the rations with a niggardly hand”.

from niggard
mid-14c., nygart, of uncertain origin. The suffix suggests French origin (cf. -ard), but the root word is probably related to O.N. hnøggr “stingy,” from P.Gmc. *khnauwjaz (cf. Swed. njugg “close, careful,” Ger. genau “precise, exact”), and to O.E. hneaw “stingy, niggardly,” which did not survive in M.E. [etymonline.com]

nigger
1786, earlier neger (1568, Scottish and northern England dialect), from Fr. nègre, from Sp. negro (see Negro, from Latin nigrum (nominative form niger) “black,” of unknown origin (perhaps from Proto Indo European *nekw-t- “night,”). From the earliest usage it was “the term that carries with it all the obloquy and contempt and rejection which whites have inflicted on blacks” [cited in Gowers, 1965]. But as black inferiority was at one time a near universal assumption in English-speaking lands, the word in some cases could be used without deliberate insult. More sympathetic writers late 18c. and early 19c. seem to have used black (n.) and, after the American Civil War, colored person. Also applied by English settlers to dark-skinned native peoples in India, Australia, Polynesia. The reclamation of the word as a neutral or positive term in black culture (not universally regarded as a worthwhile enterprise), often with a suggestion of “soul” or “style,” is attested first in the Amer. South, later (1968) in the Northern, urban-based Black Power movement. [”You’re a fool nigger, and the worst day’s work Pa ever did was to buy you,” said Scarlett slowly. … There, she thought, I’ve said ‘nigger’ and Mother wouldn’t like that at all.” [Margaret Mitchell, “Gone With the Wind,” 1936] [etymonline.com]

Dr. Laura Schlessinger, radio dispenser of advice and moral judgments, is taking considerable heat for her response to a call involving the word nigger. I don’t even know if WordPress will allow me to spell that word out—and that is what I want to talk about. If you would like to see a transcript of the call and Dr. Laura’s remarks immediately after the call, it is here.

I will say that I think Dr. Laura should apologize, but not for saying a bad word on the radio. For whatever reason, she abandoned her professional role and lost the distance and composure essential to that role. Instead of asking elucidating questions and listening to the caller’s answers, she went off on a rant of her own. As Dear Abby and Ann Landers and others have often decreed, when a spouse hears relatives or friends insulting or taunting his or her spouse, spouse1 must let the relatives/friends know that this is not acceptable, that neither member of the couple will stay to hear such insults and taunts. There are good practical reasons for this, and there is even Biblical justification: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.” Genesis 2:24. New American Standard Bible (©1995)

When a black woman married to a white man complained that the word nigger was being used, the therapist-of-the-air should have asked: “How is it being used? Give us an example.” Probably the example will not be a disquisition having to do with Mark Twain’s use of the word in Huckleberry Finn, or the word’s etymology, or a quotation from a black comic using the word. Most likely the remarks are of this nature: “You know niggers, they always/never…” or “Some nigger robbed the convenience store over by where I work…”

These uses are insulting, hostile, and demeaning, like all the other dehumanizing terms used to set some group apart from the rest of us. English has terms like that for Arabs, Baptists, Catholics, Jews, fat people, smart people, stupid people, white people, Hispanic people, gay people, men, women, and people whose ancestors were from Ireland, Italy, Poland, Scandinavia, and so on. Other languages have similar terms for the same list, subtracting the words for the speaker’s religion, gender, sexual preference, appearance, and ethnic origin, and adding ones for us Americans. Sometimes there’s intra-group use of such terms; Dr. Laura went off on that tangent but I will not, it’s irrelevant. When outsiders use the term it is almost exclusively insulting and demeaning. Worst of all, these dehumanizing terms are the mental preparation for pogroms, lynchings, beatings, bombings, murders, war, and ethnic cleansing (a shocking euphemism which deserves its own examination, but not here).

No question, nigger is not a word for everyday use by non-blacks, same as the other group-based terms alluded to above.

But when someone wants to excise words from our language, all of us should resist.

When we begin killing words, where will it end?

Some may say, Better words than people! My reply is that manipulating language is the same as manipulating thought, which in turn changes how we act. Dehumanizing the Other is a preparation for war, violence and mistreatment, whether organized or individual. What’s necessary and positive is to continue to educate people not to use these category-based insulting demeaning words to other people. If you want to call someone lazy then do that, but don’t couple it with an insult to the person’s innate or historic self. I can argue with you about whether I am lazy or not, and if convinced that I am, I can choose to change it, but I will always be a black Scandinavian Catholic gay smart woman, if that is what I am.

If we must substitute the ridiculous circumlocution “the N-word” for nigger, then how do we discuss historical documents that used it? How do we read literature that used it? How do we talk about the word itself and its history that renders it sharp as a sword, clanking with manacles, reeking of hatred and suffering?

James Baldwin used nigger, and not just in the vocative sense (e.g., my example, as some use “man”, “Man, you know I’m…”, “Nigger, you know I’m…”) In fact he and Dick Gregory made a serious movie by that title, and it’s the title of Dick Gregory’s 1990 autobiography. Baldwin and Gregory believed that the word and its various meanings needed to be thought about, talked about, by whites and blacks.

Apparently “the N-word” attained popularity during the OJ Simpson trial, in talking about recorded statements by Mark Fuhrman. Chris Darden, black prosecutor, tried to save Fuhrman’s credibility by letting everyone know how awful he, Darden, thought the word was: “The prosecutor [Christopher Darden], his voice trembling, added that the “N-word” was so vile that he would not utter it. “It’s the filthiest, dirtiest, nastiest word in the English language.”

But the Bowdlers who gave us first “the F-word” and then “the N-word” won’t stop there. Broadcasters aid and abet them, probably feeling a little frisson of guilty pleasure at being able to allude unmistakably to words the FCC won’t permit them to utter. And some people make up new “[letter] – words” to dramatize their remarks or because they feel victimized. So we have “the B-word”, and words for C, D, E, F, G, H, J, K and on through the alphabet. Some of the words so represented are offensive, others are as inoffensive as “green”.

Let’s let this “N-word” thing stop and fade away. Many times it will be sufficient to say that a person used a “racial slur referring to black people”. If not, then just say the word. “Candidate Joe Smith singled out a black man in the audience for insult, calling him a nigger and a ‘mono’, Spanish for monkey.” Let’s be grown-ups about language and about how we treat others. Hiding behind alphabetical euphemisms makes us sound like giggling 8 year olds, and prevents us from thinking and talking about the issues that euphemisms cover up.