Whitewashing History In Mark Twain

by thiszine

BY SWEETMAN

Mark Twain has been surrounded by controversy since he began publishing his writing. Witty, satirical and irreverent, William Faulkner hailed him as “the father of American literature.” Twain was born in 1835 and died in 1910, and his novels and essays were a reflection of his life and times. Twain’s writing is often light and humorous but he was equally infamous for his penchant to delve into sobering societal hypocrisies and inhumanity toward others.

For these dark themes, Twain’s most notable novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) have been mired in controversy over the appropriateness of teaching them to young readers. They have been banned from libraries, schools and curriculum since they were first published. The controversy surrounding Twain’s these novels still rages into the 21st century; his two most famous novels still rank in the top 100 of the American Library Association’s most frequently challenged and banned books.

Enter Auburn University Professor Alan Gribben, a Mark Twain scholar who decided, after forty years of studying and teaching the writings of Twain, to change the content of both The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. His changes substitute racially derogatory words for African-Americans and Native-Americans for, in Professor Gribben’s opinion, the more socially acceptable 21st century terms “slave” and “Indian” (wouldn’t “Native American” be the more politically correct version?). He reasons that by substituting the n- and i-words for more socially acceptable words he is eliminating “preemptive censorship” of the novels and thus preventing further cries of inappropriateness in public schools. Professor Gribben defends his edits as offering to teachers and general readers “an option for a more palatable reading experience.”

Well doesn’t that just make altering a dead author’s work The Right Thing To Do! And maybe the politically correct white-washing of Classic American Literature will revise our unsavory and uncomfortable history of slavery, segregation and racial inequality!

Censorship is censorship. No matter how earnestly one feels he/she is defending an author, alteration of the author’s final text to make it more “palatable” to the masses is censorship. Mark Twain did not use the word “slave” 219 times in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and no amount of good intention by Professor Gribben gives him the right to change Twain’s work. Furthermore, using a less inflammatory yet definitively wrong word as the substitution for a highly offensive, racially charged word sets Professor Gribben squarely on a path of whitewashing then rinsing an unfortunate part of American History.

There is a word for Professor Gribben’s particular brand of censorship as he is not the first well-meaning expert to try to gloss a work of literature to make it less offensive. Thomas Bowdler, an English physician, decided to expurgate the works of William Shakespeare and Edward Gibbons to render them more appropriate for the delicate eyes of 19th century women and children. His edits were soundly ridiculed and rejected. The term bowdlerize is now eponymous with literary censorship.

Gribben’s bowdlerization of Twain’s writing is an act of incredible vanity. During a reading as part of the NEA’s Big Read Program in Alabama, Gribben read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and routinely substituted “slave” for the n-word to make for a more comfortable reading. Apparently Professor Gribben liked the swap so much that he is perfectly comfortable tweaking Twain’s works in writing to make it easier on our modern eyes.

Censorship of Twain’s novels does both the author and the content of the novels a tremendous disservice. It is impossible to know if Mark Twain would make politically correct changes to his novels today and we can only guess what he would want. Twain wrote in the vernacular of the time. The derogatory slang use of the n-word in the 1870s is not burdened with the unspeakable weight that it carries in the 21st century. Yet that unspeakable weight is the burden of a society that has to live with the acts and deeds of its predecessors, like it or not. Difficult as it is to read, write and speak, censorship of a novel that reflects true historical times does not protect or teach young readers and bowdlerizing literature to make reading more palatable teaches nothing.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are tremendous novels with a sad truth still present today: our capability for committing inhumane acts. As a society, we haven’t changed enough to read Twain’s novels with any historical distance. To the contrary, the power of Twain’s writing has drastically changed to make his words uncomfortable, taboo and unspeakable in classrooms. Expunging those words changes nothing within our present culture. It’s just censorship.

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3 Responses to “Whitewashing History In Mark Twain”

  1. Excellent post and I couldn’t agree more with your words.

    Also, as sad as it is, one must realize that racism and the N word is still common in many homes throughout this country, or in general attitudes in society. Perhaps changing this word is just another way of denying our past and our present – a way of “cleaning up the art” so it looks better on the pages of history and allows us to pretend that racism is a thing of the past.

    Thanks for a great read on a controversial topic.

    ~Marissa

  2. Agreed on all counts.

    This is simply a bad idea.

    What happens next? I guess they’ll be taking the same word out of To Kill a Mocking Bird, and censoring the violence of The Things They Carried and Lord of the Flies.

    That particular word is degrading, yes. And part of Huck Finn deals with Tom’s status as something subhuman in society’s eye. To have any other word than what Twain wrote would be a crime against Twain’s legacy and against the text itself.

    It may, as Gribben says is the reasoning behind this choice, help keep Huck Finn in classrooms and help retain its status as a classic, but what’s the point if it dilutes the book?

    Anyone who believes that literature is capable of more than just entertainment, capable of playing a role in shaping our society by challenging popular notions and presenting the dark and unflattering truths of humanity should take a stand against this movement lest we find the books of our age whitewashed, and our words mangled by generations down the line for the sake of being politically acceptable.

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