Who really owns Huckleberry Finn?

Posted: January 6, 2011 in Business, Misleadership
Tags: , , , ,

Like so many of you out there, I am outraged at the sanitizing of Huckleberry Finn by replacing the “N” word with “slave.” At first, I assumed Alan Gribben and NewSouth Books must be doing it to sell books to schools and libraries that banned the original, riding the wave of political correctness and sensationalism to the best seller list.

But then I read the article in Publisher’s Weekly and came to the realization that Gribben really thinks he’s doing the right thing:

“After a number of talks, I was sought out by local teachers, and to a person they said we would love to teach this novel, and Huckleberry Finn, but we feel we can’t do it anymore. In the new classroom, it’s really not acceptable.” Gribben became determined to offer an alternative for grade school classrooms and “general readers” that would allow them to appreciate and enjoy all the book has to offer. “For a single word to form a barrier, it seems such an unnecessary state of affairs,” he said.

The article ends with a quote from NewSouth publisher Suzanne La Rosa:

But the heart of the matter is opening up the novels to a much broader, younger, and less experienced reading audience: “Dr. Gribben recognizes that he’s putting his reputation at stake as a Twain scholar,” said La Rosa. “But he’s so compassionate, and so believes in the value of teaching Twain, that he’s committed to this major departure. I almost don’t want to acknowledge this, but it feels like he’s saving the books. His willingness to take this chance—I was very touched.”

Sounds reasonable, right? Even noble: Making Huckleberry Finn accessible to everyone, at the cost of one’s reputation. I mean, after all, the book is considered one of the great American novels, perhaps the greatest. It’s the ultimate indictment of those who judge people by how they look, or the title or position in society they hold, or even their familial relationship, rather than judging them by their actions and their hearts.

And wouldn’t that message be just as strong without the “N” word or “Injun” scattered over 200 times across its pages?

Who cares? That’s not the issue here.

The question is: Who owns Huckleberry Finn? And I don’t mean who owns the right to publish it. I mean, whose book is it?

It’s not Gribben’s book. It’s not our book. Librarians and school teachers and school boards and offended readers don’t own it.

It’s Mark Twain’s book. He wrote it. He could have used the word slave, but he didn’t.

Good intentions don’t justify censorship or the mutilation of art, whether you’re a teacher or the Pope. (Sorry, Pius IX.)  And I don’t think anyone who has ever read Mark Twain would suggest he would approve of Gribben’s actions. This is exactly the kind of misguided sophistry Twain would skewer with his rapier wit. Rather than openly fight the injustice of censorship, our brave hero slinks in shrouded in a cloak of acceptability.

But mostly, it’s just wrong. Twain is powerless to defend his words against Gribben’s literary rape.

Isn’t there a word for depriving someone of their right to self-determination, when you treat them like an object to serve your needs rather than as a human being deserving of respect?

Can someone please tell me who gave Alan Gribben and NewSouth Books the right to treat Mark Twain like a… “slave?”

Comments
  1. A Fan says:

    I like your new look; I keep losing my post so you may see several unfinished versions of this.

    This is a sticky subject and I applaud your willingness to tackle it. In my (humble) opinion, the book should be taught as written with discussions of why we no longer approve of using “that” word: why it is wrong, offensive, etc. That way, our children will learn how far we have or have not come in correcting attitudes that were common back then but hopefully on their way out now.

    • jlsimons says:

      Great solution, A Fan. Just whitewashing the word doesn’t raise the same “teachable moment” that discussing it openly and honestly does. And thanks for the compliment on the facelift.

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