06 January 2011


HUCK FINN. For the past few days, a hornets nest of controversy has swirled around the announcement that a new edition of Mark Twain's literary classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn "will replace the word 'nigger,' which occurs 219 times in the book, with 'slave.' (The edition also substitutes 'Indian' for 'Injun.')"

Debaters in a NYTimes discussion criticize and defend the decision by the publisher, New South Books. Huck Finn is one of a select few books which vie for the honorific The Great American Novel -- along with Herman Melville's Moby Dick, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, and several others. Huck Finn satirizes the racism of the antebellum American South, as its eponymous protagonist undergoes a reluctant transformation from being blinded to the humanity of African Americans to shedding that blindness as he befriends the runaway slave Jim. It is a story of transcendent self-questioning and gradual illumination, not only for Huck but for the reader.

Which is precisely why the text should be left alone. As Michael Young commented in a conversation thread following the 3 Quarks Daily article "Huck Finn and the 'N' Word,"

"I don't think the issue is one of being faithful to a particular dialect or not, as if the racism in Huck Finn were merely some color. The issue is rather that Huckleberry Finn does not work as the novel it is, absent its setting in a culture pervaded by deep and casual racism. The reader needs to understand that Jim is completely dehumanized by the racist culture in order to see Jim's humanity as a contrast, and then to see the moral dilemma for Huckleberry at the heart of the novel -- which morality to follow? The morality of the culture, or his own heart?

"In other words, Huckleberry Finn is a deeply anti-racist novel. But it needs the picture of a deeply racist culture in order to work as the piece of literature that it is."

Precisely. As one of the NYTimes debaters suggests, dumbing down a great novel to appease the sensitivities of certain students and teachers misses the point. One must see an event (whether racism, war, gender bias, violence or political rancor) in all its ugliness in order to really understand it, and then intelligently address it. (The Quaker concept of Bearing Witness applies directly to this discussion -- being mindfully present at a reprehensible act, even when one cannot prevent it, in order to honor the victims.) To water down Huck Finn would be a grievous mistake, one which Mark Twain himself would recognize for its absurdity. Others may disagree, but as for me, do not censor a writer's work to protect me -- allow me to read the words as written, and to make my own informed choices. Censorship in the name of political correctness is just one step shy of book-burning.

ROGER EBERT. In an August 2010 post I paid tribute to the 35-year presence of the television series "At the Movies" (in which two film critics evaluate recent movie releases), and expessed my deep regret that the series was being terminated. Grand news -- one of the show's original hosts, Roger Ebert, has taken the initiative and is bringing "At the Movies" back to broadcast television. Ebert announced the news in his Chicago Sun-Times feature Roger Ebert's Journal as follows -- "Christy Lemire of the Associated Press and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky of Mobi.com will be the co-hosts of 'Ebert Presents At the Movies.' The two experienced and respected critics will also introduce special segments featuring other contributors and the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Roger Ebert. The new weekly program debuts January 21 on public television stations in 48 of the top 50 markets, representing more than 90% national coverage."

With Roger Ebert at the helm, his wife Chaz Ebert as executive producer, and an impressive lineup of fresh voices joining the discussion, I cannot wait for the program's return !!

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