Big Dig First Draft: Literary Censorship in the Digital Era

BY RYAN P. CASEY

Whether he was faking his own death, impersonating a girl or sneaking out of his house in the middle of the night, Huckleberry Finn was always causing trouble. But who knew that he would still be a cause for concern over a century after his literary debut?

The recent announcement that NewSouth Books is publishing a revised edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that replaces the “n-word” with “slave” has once again placed the frequently contested American classic at the center of a controversy. Disputes over the novel’s treatment of race, originating from its initial publication, have kept it out of classrooms for decades, with both teachers and students alike struggling to reconcile its allegedly abolitionist themes with its offensive language. Scholars continue to argue whether Twain succeeded in, or even truly attempted, establishing a polemic about racism. Either way, Auburn University professor Alan Gribben, the scholar behind this alternate – He objects to the term “censored” – edition of the novel, believes the important thing is to prevent the book from being continually banned by schools nationwide.

“Race matters in [this book],” he said. “It’s a matter of how you express that in the 21st century.”

This age of digital media and e-publishing has complicated the conversation about Huck Finn in ways Twain himself could never have imagined. When seemingly anybody with an internet connection has the ability to publish material online, in any form he chooses, then “alternate” versions of texts abound. One need only look at Harry Potter as a prime example. In addition to the pristine original version, a simple Google search can uncover the abridged version, the kids’ version, the censored version, and several crazy fan-fiction porn versions.

“As with all things, the internet gives us more and less at the same time,” said journalist, author and radio personality Mary Elizabeth Williams. “It’s a stronger pull in both directions. You used to have one or two versions of say, a translation of a work – now you can access hundreds. The possibilities are endless.”

And with so many possibilities, will censorship even be worthwhile or feasible? If the medium has gone mostly or completely digital within the next few years, any new version of a text in the public domain can simply be replaced by somebody else’s version. And then that version can be republished, and so on. Brooklyn author and teacher Richard Grayson recently self-published The Hipster Huckleberry Finn, in which every appearance of the “n-word” is replaced with “hipster.”

[N.B.: I am exchanging emails with Grayson at the moment and will insert some of his commentary here.]

Not all edited versions of classic texts qualify as literary rape. Many abbreviated, modernized versions are available so that younger readers can enjoy these stories without dated and winding prose, mature themes or extraneous plot elements. Even the popular editions of Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books that are available today have been considerably condensed since they were originally published in the 1930s and ‘40s.

But when “editing” decisions become mere clicks of the mouse with the “find-and-replace” function on a word processor, it is hard to say who has the authority to decide what and how material should be censored or banned. With Kindles and Nooks reviving out-of-print materials and providing a platform for self-publishing, the reading experience is now literally interactive, thrusting readers into the roles of creators, editors, publishers and writers.

“The danger is in the signal to noise ratio,” Williams said. “What happens when the mashup surpasses the original? What happens if the diluted version of a great work becomes the one at the top of the search parameters? We now live in a culture where any artistic word is considered fair game for re-interpretation, and that has consequences for us as critical readers.”

What none of these new developments in technology can do for us is think critically, and that is arguably the greatest fault in censoring a work of art. Recent statistics from the Collegiate Learning Assessment revealed that at the end of their sophomore years, almost half of college students have made no significant improvement in the fields of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills. And about thirty-six percent of students have made progress by their senior year. Censoring classic literature, which appears as an attempt to both whitewash and avoid serious discussion of ticklish subjects, is certainly not going to help those numbers.

Whatever Mark Twain’s original intention was – and we can never be completely certain of it – we at least know that he was trying, like many artists before and after his time, to spark thought and conversation over a controversial topic. Rather than trying to devise ways around it, like parents talking to their children about sex, maybe it is time to face these difficult conversations and have an open dialogue, in and out of the classroom. Or, as Huck’s father would say, enough of this “hifalut’n foolishness!”

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