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Pearl-clutching: My response to the Huck Finn controversy

January 6, 2011


Thank you and good night.

…Seriously though, we censor movies on television, we have “children’s versions” of books–we have easy reader versions, and juvenile versions, and adult versions of books.  Why is this printing so special?  Because someone thought it was news.

Way back in my LittMeth (Literary Methodologies) class at Stockton, we had a discussion on “the n word” and I was so used to my black friends–yeah, I said it–tossing it around all the time that I was startled for a second when a girl in class spoke up and said it made her horribly, horribly uncomfortable.  But then I thought, “Why SHOULD she be comfortable, just because ___ and ___ are?”  Would it be easier for her, emotionally, mentally, to read a version where the words have been changed but she’s aware of the original use and context?  Probably.  So why shouldn’t she have that book, so long as it’s properly labeled as altered?

No one’s asking to retro-fit the rest of the editions, as far as I can tell.  So I don’t see the controversy, except that which has been created by the media.  Sigh.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 6, 2011 11:24 am

    To me the race of the person that’s uncomfortable should be taken into consideration. Which I know, is kind of prejudiced in itself, but my perspective as a person who identifies as African American is kind of torn on the subject.

    I feel uncomfortable with the N-word, I don’t use it, don’t plan on letting my (future) children use it. I don’t even like music that uses it. I understand the whole “reclaiming” aspect of it, but I think it’s just one of those words that holds too much weight in modern society.

    However, in Huckleberry Finn, it’s used for a point, that Jim is nothing, so much so that it’s used as a part of his name. It’s supposed to be emotionally taxing and challenging so that people can see the dehumanization of Jim. So that people can see, not just the injustice, but the cold hearted reality of what being a black slave in the South meant.

    The books is problematic for lots of reasons, but not because the N-Word makes some people uncomfortable. It’s supposed to, and I think removing it really does take away something from the book.

    • Megan permalink
      January 6, 2011 12:12 pm

      I agree. Removing words that “offend” in order to keep a book from being challenged (the most common reason I’ve seen, correct me if I’m wrong) is rather missing a point. The response SHOULDN’T just be “Oh that’s a bad word! Won’t someone think of the children!”, thereby causing people to want the book banned or censored, what should be challenged (in a “let’s read this and discuss it” way) are, as mahasin noted, the historical/societal concepts that allowed that word to be used in such a way in the first place. Yes, there have been multiple editions of the book like you said, and I’m sure that 90% of the reaction to this one IS the media influence, but I think that this is the first one specifically done to address the challenging of the book, and I think that’s the wrong approach.
      I’m biased as a New Historicist of old, but you can’t remove something that is extremely indicative of the time/place that a work was written in without compromising the work.

      • January 14, 2011 7:11 am

        I don’t think this first generation of “censored” readers would have the ability to avert the important discussion even if they tried. In that way, it’s more of a compromise in the alternate sense of the word.

        Admittedly, the classmate I mentioned above is one example, but she was a college-level student; I couldn’t imagine her having to read the original without some psychological damage. She literally flinched when the professor said the word–without context, with other epithets to hammer home the point that we were no longer in a high school classroom. (It was pretty much a freshman class, even though I was a junior when I took it because I transferred.) Her discomfort permeated the whole class and, out of consideration to her, we just said “n-word” for the rest of the discussion. I don’t think that courtesy limited us, and I would think that a good teacher could manage to work with a altered version of the work and still manage to impart every lesson that might be taught otherwise.

    • January 14, 2011 7:04 am

      Having not read the work, I’m not qualified to talk about the use of the word in the text, but it was always my understanding that it was not an aspect of the criticism of slavery as we would see it today, which is why I said I don’t have a problem with replacing it for those who want to read the work but have no desire for discomfort. I agree with you that the race of the reader is important here, but I think it’s because my daughter is hitting her teen years that I imagine that this publication would give an option to understandably uncomfortable teen readers. Of course, I don’t believe it should be the default, nor does it excuse the conversation that needs to take place on the existence of the word in the text.

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