“Huck Finn” still causing trouble in 21st century

By RYAN P. CASEY

On the first day of rehearsals for Red Mountain Theatre Company’s production of “Big River,” the musical adaptation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the cast and crew of a very fun play had to have a very serious talk.

Like the novel on which it is based, “Big River” includes some language and themes that may still make modern audiences uncomfortable. Director Tamara DeBolt informed everyone in the Birmingham, Alabama production that the musical, while funny, was no laughing matter when it came to the use of the word “nigger.” The script for “Big River” comes with suggested changes for dialogue, where the word offending word can be substituted for “slave.” DeBolt decided to make some of changes, but ignore others for dramatic purposes, carefully choosing moments when it would fit a character’s attitude or the tone of a scene, and she wanted her cast to take them very seriously.

“If everyone in the show said the n-word in every scene, it would lose the dramatic effect for when it does occur,” said Reid Watson, 18, who played Huck.

The decision is ultimately an artistic one, and the cast has honored it from the start. But on the national stage, the excision of the n-word from Huckleberry Finn isn’t going over so well.

The recent announcement that NewSouth Books is publishing a revised edition of Mark Twain’s beloved book, substituting every appearance of 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.

On the website for NewSouth Books – a company, interestingly enough, based in Alabama – co-owner Suzanne LaRosa writes, “We gravitate to material which enhances our undertanding [sic] of who we are and which asks us to stretch in our understanding of others.” Huckleberry Finn, as perhaps evidenced by its inclusion in many an English curriculum, is a certainly a novel that does just that. But does a revised version hold fast to this philosophy?

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 Huckleberry 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. In addition to Twain’s original, a simple Google search can uncover the abridged version, the kids’ version, the censored version, and several crazy fan-fiction porn versions, such as one in which Becky Thatcher’s promiscuous cousin Holly comes to town:

Holly stands and starts running around the fire with Huck coming after her. He doesn’t know what’s come over him but he sure doesn’t care. Huck trips and falls over knocking down Holly, gets a free glimpse up her dress as she laughs at whatever the hell just happened.

“So,” she starts between chuckling. “You like what you just saw, huh?”

…The raven haired girl reached into the small opening to the front of Huck’s boxers and gave his shaft a small bit of relief by stroking it slightly and giving him a small kiss on the neck.

“Holly, I…”

“Just keep quiet a while.”

She stops kissing his neck and adjusts her attention to him downstairs and slides him slowly into her mouth just enough for him to let out a small sigh.

“You feel a little better?”

“As with all things, the Internet gives us more and less at the same time,” said Mary Elizabeth Williams, a journalist, author and radio personality. “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 Richard Grayson recently self-published The Hipster Huckleberry Finn, in which every appearance of the “n-word” is replaced with “hipster”:

Jim was monstrous proud about it, and he got so he wouldn’t hardly notice the other hipsters. Hipsters would come miles to hear Jim tell about it, and he was more looked up to than any hipster in that country. Strange hipsters would stand with their mouths open and look him all over, same as if he was a wonder. Hipsters is always talking about witches in the dark by the kitchen fire; but whenever one was talking and letting on to know all about such things, Jim would happen in and say, “Hm! What you know ‘bout witches?” and that hipster was corked up and had to take a back seat.

“I made [it] because, frankly, I found the opposition to be annoying,” he said. “There’s really no downside from an intellectual point of view if you’re a writer or academic. In certain instances these [kinds of] transformations are considered daring and progressive and beloved by the same people who decried the book without the offending word.”

But according to Luvell Anderson, a part-time instructor at the W.E.B. DuBois Scholars Institute, the disadvantages of this editorial decision are clear.

“Twain captures the cultural sentiments of his day by displaying their linguistic practices. Editing them to appease the sensitivities of our contemporary culture creates a sanitized, false picture of the past,” he said. “The new version is a bit patronizing. It assumes, maybe wrongly, that students can no longer be mature enough to handle it.”

Sam Shaughnessy, the stage manager for Red Mountain Theatre Company’s “Big River,” agrees.

“Taking [the n-word] out all together to me is like saying that the audience isn’t mature enough to handle the content. [The production staff] left it in there because we are trying to bring the audience into a world where people are racist. This is a reality, that most white Americans were racists in the time period, and it would be a lie to everyone watching if it weren’t included.”

When William Hauptman wrote the original script for Big River in 1985, forefront in his mind was a recent production at Seattle Repertory Theatre that had remained faithful to the appearance of the n-word in the text – all 219 of them.

“I decided when I wrote Big River that there had to be some use of the ‘n-word’ or I would not be properly depicting the very problem Twain was addressing. But I knew if I used it [219] times it would cease to mean anything. So I ended up using it about 18 times, which I thought was about right.”

Despite arguments between Hauptman and the producer, director and composer – with some contending the word should be used upwards of 100 times, and others not at all – the play was, and remains, a hit. Soon after Barack Obama was elected President, Hauptman decided the word did not need to appear so much in his script. He asked the estate of legendary songwriters Rogers and Hammerstein to include with his script a letter with suggestions for when and how the n-word could be substituted for “slave,” though never entirely. This revision pared its appearances to 13.

“About the same time I saw a saw a production of Big River at the Goodspeed Opera House,” he said. “Almost all the African-Americans had been in previous productions. I learned to my surprise that some of these productions had stuck to the script, but others had eliminated the “ n-word” entirely. The African-Americans said they liked doing it either way.  So I learned that the whole controversy had been over nothing. . . . It was out of my control.”

Not all edited versions of classic texts have attracted this kind of controversy. Many abbreviated, modernized versions are available so that younger readers can enjoy these stories without dated and winding prose and mature themes. 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.

With Huckleberry Finn, the real issue is the “n-word” itself. Its long and complicated history makes it difficult to determine who can use it, in what contexts it is deemed appropriate and whether or not the audience will accept it. Its prevalence in today’s rap and hip-hop music seems to have become a societal standard, yet it cannot be uttered on television. Many white celebrities, including Mel Gibson and comedian Michael Richards, have been publicly chastised and blackballed for using the word, while others, like Lisa Lampanelli and Bill Maher, have escaped rebuke.

The word has evolved so much since Twain’s time that rules of its usage are now unclear, and the fear of political correctness doesn’t seem to help. On her blog, Word: The Online Journal of African American English, New York University professor Renee Blake dedicated a series of entries to the etymology, history and societal implications of this taboo term.

“It can be used negatively, positively or neutrally,” she wrote. “One can imagine that in using it, African Americans are stripping the word of its historical power. Yet, others … are using it for social commentary or artistic power. But for many, the N-word is linked to a past still too painful. Furthermore, the word does not reflect the great accomplishments of African Americans.”

Comments from readers reveal just how confusing the word can be.

“Sorry, I’m black and I find the word extremely offensive,” wrote “Yuliana.” “It’s a very hateful and disgusting word.”

“Personally, it is hard for me to decide where to come down on this issue,” said “Rachel A.” “Being African-American, but not having grown up in an African-American community, I feel extremely uncomfortable using the N-word. However, I don’t find myself offended by it in, for example, most rap lyrics.”

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying the N-word unless it’s [sic] meaning is derogatory,” wrote “Na X.”

“M. Rafai” perhaps best summed up the conversation by stating, “It doesn’t appear that there is a middle ground or compromise that would adequately solve this problem.”

No matter where the n-word is used, somebody is bound to find it hurtful. In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, “In Defense of Offense,” legendary former talk show host Dick Cavett lambasted the overly delicate sensibility of our culture, specifically the people who are always raving about how they are offended by something. He observed certain instances of political correctness that bother him:

“Well, the infantilism of the phrase ‘the n-word,’ for example, and of those of less than fully formed cerebral development who have bowdlerized Mark Twain’s masterpiece because of the references to Huck’s beloved friend in the authentic vernacular of the time. I hate to spoil the fun of the benighted and alleged educators who have even pulled this great book from the school shelves, but Jim is the moral center of the story.”

When reading the novel aloud in the classroom, those educators and their students can make the personal choice whether or not to say the n-word, or they may decide on behalf of the entire class.

NewSouth Books has seemingly circumvented this difficult conversation between teachers and students – and with parents and school administrators – by offering a text that has already made the decision for them.  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 mash-up 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 one of the greatest faults 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.

“The fundamental issue is not the medium through which censorship occurs, but the will of people to do it,” said Professor Joan DelFattore of the University of Delaware. “If editors and publishers want to put expurgated versions of Huck Finn out there, or if governments want to ban certain material, the switch from print to digital media won’t stop them.”

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, 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!”

Watch my short video reflection on this piece here.

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