Alabama Scene

Trumping Mark Twain’s words

Bob Martin is editor and publisher of The Montgomery Independent. E-mail him at: bob@montgomeryindependent.com

Bob Martin is editor and publisher of The Montgomery Independent. E-mail him at: bob@montgomeryindependent.com

I’m betting the folks at NewSouth Books in Montgomery are doing high-fives up and down Dexter Avenue over the national controversy erupting over their latest cover: Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: The NewSouth Edition.

In what has been noted as a radical departure from previous publications of Twain’s most famous novels, the editor, noted Mark Twain scholar Alan Gribben, eliminated use of the “N” word that Twain used 219 times in his effort to write realistically about social attitudes of the 1840s. The “N” word is changed to “slave” and the words “Injun Joe” and “half-breed” are switched to “Indian Joe” and “half-blood.”

Gribben, an English professor at Auburn University/Montgomery, stresses that use of the inflammatory words has gradually diminished the potential audience for the Twain’s masterpieces.

“Through a succession of firsthand experiences, I gradually concluded that an epithetfree edition of Twain’s books was necessary. For nearly 40 years I have led college classes, bookstore forums, and library reading groups in detailed discussions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in California, Texas, New York, and Alabama, and I always recoiled from uttering the racial slurs spoken by numerous characters, including Tom and Huck.”

Gribben says he would always substitute the word “slave” for Twain’s “N-word” whenever he read any passages aloud. “I could detect a visible sense of audience relief each time, as though a nagging problem with the text had been addressed.” He says numerous communities currently ban Huckleberry Finn as required reading in public schools because of the racial language and have quietly moved the title to voluntary reading lists. The American Library Association lists the book as one of the most frequently challenged books across the nation. Gribben observes that this has caused Twain’s important works of literature to fall off curriculum lists nationwide. One thing the new book does accomplish is to unite the companion boy books in one volume, as the author had intended.

But not all concur with altering Twain’s language, calling it “revisionist” and even “putting our democracy in danger.”

“All it does is feed the American aversion to history and reflection, which is a shame. Peddling whitewashed ignorance diminishes America as much as it does our intellect,” writes a senior editor at The Atlantic. The editorial director at Colorline writes: “We’ve got our first official race flap of 2011—and it involves something published in 1884.”

Randall Kennedy, a Harvard Law School professor and author of a book on the history of the racial epithet in question, says that the term is historically appropriate and that “trying to erase the word from our culture is profoundly wrong.”

At NewSouth, publisher Suzanne LaRosa defends the revised version. “We recognized that some people would say that this was censorship of a kind, but our feeling is that there are plenty of other books out there – all of them, in fact – that faithfully replicate the text. The book is simply an option for those who may be uncomfortable with the original text,” said LaRosa.

“We saw the value in an edition that would help Twain’s works find new readers. If the publication sparks good debate about how language impacts learning or about the nature of censorship or the way in which racial slurs exercise their baneful influence, then our mission in publishing the book is fulfilled,” she says.

While I tend to agree with the Harvard professor, NewSouth and the author have the right to publish what they wish and to publish it without censorship. That’s a huge part of the greatness of America. The book will be released in mid-February and I expect the author and the publisher will earn a profit. A new governor awaits

Gov.-elect Robert Bentley says he expects to spend $1.2 million on his inauguration next Monday and he has made public the names of donors who are paying for the festivities. Alabama, like most states, doesn’t provide tax dollars for an inauguration and requires a new governor to raise money to pay for the events.

The donors get tickets to private events at the inauguration, including the ball, and special seating at public events, including the swearing-in ceremony.

I support our new governor and have great hope that he will be able to move our state forward with the creation of new jobs. With his promise to disband the former governor’s antigambling task force and to allow local law enforcement to determine the legality of gambling venues, he can immediately put some 6000 people back to work.