Annoyed Librarian
Search LibraryJournal.com ....
Subscribe to LJ
Inside Annoyed Librarian

A Boring Book Made More Boring

Whew, ALA is finished! The conference, I mean. I assume the organization is still limping along. The only fun news so far is that the ALA Council passed the resolution urging Congress to pass the DREAM Act. When the Council passes resolutions on tangential political topics, they almost always take the losing side.  It’s almost as if Congress does whatever the ALA doesn’t want them to do. But they usually at least pass the resolution before the political failure, rather than after. Next they urge Congress to not pass TARP or something.

Anyway.

A kind reader sent this on to me even before it started making the library news rounds, but I was so busy preparing for ALA Midwinter that I didn’t pay attention. Now that I’m finished with Midwinter, and have exhausted myself with free food and drink, I wanted to comment, even though the news is sooo last week.

As the newspaper of record tells us,

A new edition of “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is missing something.

Throughout the book — 219 times in all — the word “nigger” is replaced by “slave,” a substitution that was made by NewSouth Books, a publisher based in Alabama, which plans to release the edition in February….

(The book also substitutes “Indian” for “injun.”)

For some reason, librarians are interested in this news, and they don’t seem impressed with the delicate sensitivities of the editor and publisher of this volume. LJ Librarian of the Year Nancy Pearl isn’t at all happy. (Ahem, LJ, just when am I going to be the LJ Librarian of the Year? Or at least a Mover and Shaker? Haven’t I moved and shaken more librarians than anyone else around?)

I can certainly see why some librarians would be upset about it, especially those at the Office of Ineffectual Freedom who remind us about “banned” books every year. Huckleberry Finn is a “banned” book goldmine for them because lots of people challenge the book on school reading lists, and it has for some bizarre reason the designation of “classic literature.” That way librarians can tell everyone they’re defending a classic, rather than another flash in the pan children’s book about penguins.

Personally, I’ve never been a fan of anything by Mark Twain, since I consider Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer and the rest to be glorified local color fiction, like Uncle Remus but with more words. If I wanted ignorant country boys pulling pranks and speaking in dialect, I’d watch old episodes of “The Dukes of Hazzard.” At least those boys look good in tight jeans.

But if it is a classic, it’s that much more worth defending! The problem is, a bowdlerized Huck Finn is no longer a classic. This takes away some of the OIF’s best armor.

No longer a classic, you say! Yes, I do say. The bowdlerization has made an already boring book even more boring. It’s not the political correctness of the word substitution, but it’s inaccuracy that bothers me, persnickety librarian that I am.

Look at the first substitution, “slave” for “nigger.” Problem #1: the word “slave” also appears in Huck Finn (11 times). How do we know which is which?

Problem #2: the bigger problem. The two words do not mean the same thing. For example, here’s a quote from Huck Finn:

“Oh, yes, this is a wonderful govment, wonderful.  Why, looky here. There was a free nigger there from Ohio–a mulatter, most as white as a white man.”

In the bowdlerization, this sentence would have to read, “there was a free slave,” thus making complete nonsense of the phrase.

If the editor wanted to protect delicate sensibilities and keep some sense, he would have needed to use another word or phrase, and there’s just not one. You can’t say, “There was a free African-American,” because the two terms aren’t the same.

This is why lexicographers get it wrong, too. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary gives the definition as “usually offensive; a black person.” But “black person” no more translates “nigger” than does “African-American.” Also, I would be willing to bet, that the word as used today is usually not offensive, because it’s not used in the charged interracial social context that gives the word its power to offend.

There is no adequate synonym of the word that captures the nasty connotations the word has developed in the last 150 years. It’s just not possible. You can define it, maybe. It’s a deliberate racial slur in some contexts referring to an African-American.

Yet one can’t substitute something like “racial slur in some contexts for an African-American,” because then the sentence would have to read, “There was a free racial slur for an African-American,” which would be gibberish, plus historically inaccurate, since no Twain character would ever say African-American.

Maybe they could put brackets around the explanatory phrase. “There was a free [racial slur for African-American].” The brackets couldn’t be any more distracting than the dialect.

Similar problems exists for the other substitution, “Indian” for “injun.” Injuns are not Indians. Indians are people from India. Other than their self-proclaimed names, no one seems quite sure what to call the peoples formerly known as injuns.

“Native American” is inaccurate, since anyone born in the U.S. is a native American. “American Indian” is just as problematic.

Besides, 5 of the 11 times the word “injun is used,” it’s in the saying “Honest injun,” which is an idiomatic phrase with a distinct meaning. No one has ever said, “Honest Indian.”

One would have thought a professor of literature would be more sensitive to issues of dynamic and formal equivalence in translation, but I guess not. He’s turned a teachable moment into a forgettable book.

As I said, this bowdlerized Huck Finn will no longer be a classic, which will make it harder for the ALA to defend when it’s challenged, which it’s sure to be on grounds of literary taste alone.

If I had a child assigned this edition, I would protest on the grounds that the editor had taken a book for semi-literates and turned it into a book for complete illiterates. I wonder what the OIF would have to say about that!

Share

Comments

  1. AndersonicTK426 says:

    “If I wanted ignorant country boys pulling pranks and speaking in dialect, I’d watch old episodes of “The Dukes of Hazzard.” – genius.

  2. will manley says:

    AL…a number of things: 1) I totally support you for next year’s Librarian of the Year (Nancy Pearl does rate over you however…you are my second favorite librarian…sorry.) But I do have a problem with the feral cat thing of yours. There are enough cats in libraries. How about a new symbol that I can support. Not a dog, perhaps a mama grizzy. 2) A mover and shaker you are…definitely even as a cat. AL, you are the straw that stirs the drink in the library profession in these dark days of mediocrity. As for Huck, they can do anything they want to the second half of the book which is a sad farce, but they really should leave the first 150 pages alone. They do soar. Soaring….there’s a thought. Maybe you’re an eagle. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

  3. Fat Guy says:

    ” I consider Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer and the rest to be glorified local color fiction, like Uncle Remus but with more words.”
    An opinion about as informed as Michelangelo being “a glorified ceiling painter, no better than my brother-in-law in Hoboken” or the Beatles being “just another average Liverpudlian skiffle group.”

  4. Diego says:

    Re: Will Manley

    An eagle? No, I think if the AL had to change her stripes, she would likely think the serpent would be the most flattering comparison. A snake to whisper secrets into the ears of unsuspecting innocents, usurping the authority of foolhardy tyranny….

  5. Keytar Girl says:

    Agree with will manley. How about a really angry owl (connotes wisdom, no?)or a howling wolf? Here’s a terrifying website I found listing some potential power animals. http://www.animalspirits.com/index1.html

  6. librarEwoman says:

    While I almost always find at least one thing with which to disagree, I completely agree with what you say in this post.

  7. Annoyed Librarian says:

    The Beatles are the most overrated pop band in history.

    And how did you know I had a brother-in-law in Hoboken?

  8. SK says:

    I actually agree about Twain being somewhat overrated. I think the black literary criticism regarding Jim as a Tom stereotype [ http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/tom/ ] is dead on, and it’s altogether an uncomfortable piece of work. Sorry, Nancy Pearl, but you don’t get to tell someone that they just ~don’t understand~ if they’re hurt by Twain’s stereotyping. This is much the same as pulling someone’s hair and then saying “I’m not hurting you!” It’s not YOUR decision, it’s THEIRS. I don’t believe the book should be censored, but I don’t believe it should be taught in public schools either. Other books deal with the same issues much more tactfully, written just as well. Leave Huck Finn in libraries, next to Kipling’s Kim.

    However, I also want to put in a word about Indians. AL, that’s not your decision either! “Self-proclaimed” names? That’s incredibly patronizing. From what I’m given to understand, ‘Native’ is OK, ‘Indian’ or ‘American Indian’ is also OK, but use the name of the specific tribe if at all possible, seeing as the nations really aren’t interchangable.

  9. SK says:

    Addendum — I see ‘native’ used most commonly as an adjective, but sometimes in the phrase of “Indians and Alaskan Natives,” too. I’ve seen people use “indigenous peoples,” but normally only in terms of cross-continental groups.

    And please, for love of God, don’t use ‘Amerindian.’ It’s not really offensive as far as I know, but some portmanteaus were just not meant to be.

  10. Fat Guy says:

    I actually kind of like the term Canadians use–”First Nations.” I don’t think that would fly here, though.

    AL–nice try, but calling the Beatles “the most overrated band in pop history” is a boring contrarian cliche. It’s employed unnecessarily by people who merely dislike the band’s output but somehow feel threatened by their omnipresence in modern pop music. No need to go nuclear on it.

  11. Sarah K says:

    While I agree with the substance of the post–bowdlerizing any work is just bad bad BAD–I was kind of startled to see you say that “Also, I would be willing to bet, that the word as used today is usually not offensive, because it’s not used in the charged interracial social context that gives the word its power to offend.”

    …Really? We don’t have a “charged interracial social context” today? The word itself is charged with centuries of negative meaning–and although the term is being reclaimed in some communities, I would no more use it to describe a black person than I would use a certain f-word to describe a gay person. As an outsider, my use of that word would be highly offensive.

  12. my substition of choice has always been “banana.” banana makes everything better; whenever I see a word that offends my eye, I see banana. and in this context, “Banana Jim” just makes that whole period in American history seem harmless. in fact, I’m going to Project Gutenberg right now, getting a copy and doing a find and replace to make my “Banana edition of Huck Finn.” the Kindle edition should be available by dinner time.

  13. Finallyalibrarian says:

    “Banana”, eh. Well then we will just have to remove your version as sexually suggestive!

  14. me too says:

    AL … the Beatles weren’t a pop band. They put to shame any music that’s been produced — Pink Floyd excepted — in the last 40 years.

    MJ was pop and his music was poop.

  15. me too says:

    How can any rational person read MT and not understand that his use of the word nigger was supposed to get under our skin. This book was all about inhumanity and when the steamship blows up and Huck/Tom was asked if anyone was hurt and Huck/Tom says “no, killed a nigger.” That line was seared into my being. Does anyone think Twain wasn’t bringing white ignorance to the woodshed? How will that line burn now? “No, killed a slave.” It just doesn’t cut.

  16. oddly enough says:

    Oddly enough, I just watched this on “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart

    http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/tue-january-11-2011/mark-twain-controversy

  17. Annoyed Librarian says:

    “…Really? We don’t have a “charged interracial social context” today? The word itself is charged with centuries of negative meaning–and although the term is being reclaimed in some communities, I would no more use it to describe a black person than I would use a certain f-word to describe a gay person. As an outsider, my use of that word would be highly offensive.”

    Agreed. As an outsider, your use of that word would be highly offensive. Maybe I just live a sheltered life, but it’s been decades since I’ve heard that word used in an interracial context in real life. Every time I hear that word used, it is used by an African-American male directed at another African-American male.

    And re: the Beatles, anyone who thinks they produced the best music of the last 40 years should listen to more music!

  18. SK says:

    “Me too” — The problem isn’t that Twain wasn’t trying. The problem is that he failed. (With the exception of lines like the one you quoted: I never said the man couldn’t write.) Twain had no idea of the actual lives of blacks, and that’s reflected in his characterization of Jim. There are better ways to teach about racial slurs. Some of them even use books written by – gasp – black authors! No, no, perish the thought, we need white guys to teach us about racism.

    A quote to think about: “For the past forty years, black families have trekked to schools in numerous districts throughout the country to say, ‘This book is not good for our children,’ only to be turned away by insensitive and often unwittingly racist teachers and administrators who respond, ‘This book is a classic.’” -John H. Wallace

  19. Ken says:

    “The Committee of the Public Library of Concord, Mass., have given us a rattling tip-top puff which will go into every paper in the country. They have expelled Huck from their library as ‘trash and suitable only for the slums.’ That will sell 25,000 copies for us sure.”
    -Mark Twain

    “But the truth is, that when a Library expels a book of mine and leaves an unexpurgated Bible lying around where unprotected youth and age can get hold of it, the deep unconscious irony of it delights me and doesn’t anger me.”
    -Mark Twain

    I think Twain would laugh at all the hysterics over this, though even he said that sorrow was the source of all laughter.

  20. Sarah K says:

    “Maybe I just live a sheltered life, but it’s been decades since I’ve heard that word used in an interracial context in real life.”

    It’s possible that I just live in an especially crass neighborhood. :) In the last year or so I’ve heard it used several times–including a (former) friend who used the term to describe the President.

  21. kris says:

    You totally hit the nail on the head. Replacing the word is not an issue because of freedom or censorship or whatever, but because it changes the meaning of the literature, and you can like or not like the book but if you’re gonna read it at least read it so the sentences make sense.

    I love the fact that MT was censored in his time for being too progressive and in ours for being a racist. As someone once told me, if they’re screaming at you, you must be doing something right.

  22. Spekkio says:

    “The Beatles are the most overrated pop band in history.”

    “And re: the Beatles, anyone who thinks they produced the best music of the last 40 years should listen to more music!”

    Holy crap. It’s nice to see AL commenting, but…wow. AL, you have homework. Start with “Shout!” by Philip Norman.

  23. Great post. Great comments.

    Disagree with AL on the Beatles, agree with “me too” on Pink Floyd. AL, do you like ELO? Me Too, give a listen to Polka Floyd.

  24. Youth Services Manager says:

    Spekkio, I read this blog sometimes and have read some of your earlier comments. I’ve been curious why you are going for the degree since you are well informed and obviously aware of what has been going on in the library world, i.e. job losses and how hard it is to find any library job, especially for newcomers. Why are other library students going for the degree right now? I don’t have anything against the degree, but I’ve been advising potential students against going into debt for it.

    I work closely with schools and would wait on introducing the Huck Finn book, unless the book was planned for an advanced high school class that was ready to tackle the social/racial issues (in the context of the time that the book took place, with discussion of how these times relate or don’t to current times). I remember discussions like this in college prep courses when I was in high school.

  25. Youth Services Manager says “…I work closely with schools and would wait on introducing the Huck Finn book, unless the book was planned for an advanced high school class that was ready to tackle the social/racial issues (in the context of the time that the book took place, with discussion of how these times relate or don’t to current times). I remember discussions like this in college prep courses when I was in high school.“

    But can’t we figure out how to teach this book to the non-college bound also? As it is, only about 68.8% of American students graduate from high school (CS Monitor figures for 2007), and 63% go directly to college from high school. So of the 100 who started high school, 43 graduate and go directly to college.

    Since we haven’t quite got the racism thing, and the critical thinking thing, totally solved, we really need to reach the other 57%. They vote, they raise kids, etc.

  26. ALA Watch says:

    Hey AL, have you seen this latest episode of ALA foolishness?

    http://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/comment/reply/6025#comment-form

    Before recommending that job ads include benefits for same-sex domestic partners of library employees, how about requiring advertisements to have SALARY RANGES PERIOD.

  27. SK says:

    nosleepingdogs — The question is, do we need Huck Finn SPECIFICALLY to teach about racism and critical thinking? There are lots of valuable authors whom we don’t teach in high school for various reasons, one of which is that we don’t have enough time. Why do we – why *should* we teach Huck Finn when other equally-worthy authors quite arguably do it better? Do we really need a Dead White Guy ™ – who loved minstrel shows to boot – to teach us about racism? It’s not like we’re lacking talented black authors who write about racism, either historically or currently.

  28. Youth Services Manager says:

    This is not the book that I’d choose as one of the first experiences introducing high school kids, particularly African Americans, to classic American Literature. What a lousy introduction. It’ called turning them off before they’ve even started. I think this book is important to be taught in a different way at a different time, or to be taught with an advanced class introducing this time period and its relationship to current times.