Debate Forum Left 01/19/11

Calm the Huck Down

By Ben Tompkins

Benjamin Tomkins

I’m afraid I can’t really answer the question the way it’s worded.  When someone asks me “should ‘X’ be done in art” it presumes that I have the some standing to speak on behalf of other people, which I don’t.  If you mean to ask if “I” would change the words in “Huckleberry Finn,” then no, “I” wouldn’t.  On the other hand, if an individual who publishes books in Alabama decides that he or she wants to change a few things and call it their own version, then that’s their prerogative. Anyway.

Perhaps you think I’m being a bit of a prick about it, but I really don’t think you can have the conversation any other way.  For instance, if I can see the original David or a copy with a fig leaf, I’m going to see the real thing. Perhaps some others wouldn’t, but personally I don’t want my artistic experiences to be a parade of intermediary opinions.  I’m a big boy.  However, the fact remains that we are all free to accept or reject the world’s artistic achievements on our own terms.  Similarly, I can skip the N-word in “Huck Finn,” black it out with a marker, or simply refuse to read the book entirely. Now maybe Mark Twain would take serious issue with that, but it’s my brain and my time. Ultimately, I have no one to answer to but myself as to whether or not reading a version from an Alabama publishing company that openly draws their belief that they can write better Twain than Twain from a desire to make a few bucks off of conservative school districts constitutes “reading ‘Huckleberry Finn.’”

By the way, can I just say that I’m not even remotely shocked that this nonsense is coming out of NewSouth Publishing in Alabama?  Alabama is like the Secretariat of intellectual travesties and I’m not just saying that because Monday was MLK Day either.  Listen, I’ve lived in the South and I’ve driven through Alabama. Do you have any idea how many pairs of wiper blades I went through scraping the bullshit that flies around that state off my windshield? I mean, how seriously can you take a state that loses the Civil War that profoundly and still has the intestinal fortitude to declare that it was God’s will that Auburn win the BCS Championship? Whatever. Ladies and gentlemen, I present the artist.

But to their credit, NewSouth isn’t trying to hide the fact that this is a copy.  They are hoping to make some cash publishing an edited version that will allow a school to teach “Huck Finn” without the offensive language. Sure. Go for it. It won’t avoid the discussion, but there’s certainly no harm in trying. Consider the following:

You present your students with the NewSouth version of “Huck Finn” that changes the “N-word” to “slave” so you don’t have to deal with students reading the word. Fine. You are now forced to explain to your students – when they ask – that you are giving them an altered copy instead of the original because the school board doesn’t think they should be reading the N-word in print in a public school. Wait, you said the N-word. Oops. In your attempt to avoid the discussion, you are forced to not only have the discussion, address the objectionable material in a no less comprehensive manner than you would have before, admit that your students are capable of elevating their discourse regarding historical and contextual language in “Huck Finn,” but also … rationalize why you are still going to patronize them by giving them a copy and telling them they aren’t mature enough to handle the discourse you just had.

Good luck winning that one with a room full of high school kids. What’s ironic is that the terminating point of that conversation is the students coming away with a higher regard for freedom of expression and a more vitriolic opposition to censorship.  By offering a copy you’ve greatly exacerbated the issue you were trying to avoid.  Besides, if nothing else you will virtually guarantee that the copy in the public library will be checked out for the foreseeable future. It’s probably a more effective way of getting kids to read “Huck Finn” than actually assigning it directly.

In closing, I think it’s worth reminding ourselves that NewSouth isn’t chipping the penis off the original David. Huck Finn will remain in libraries and bookstores in its full, unedited glory for all to see. And if you are someone who just doesn’t want to see the N-word in print, then A) I can’t believe you’re still reading this, and B) go get the other bloody version of “Huck Finn.”  The rest of us will handle the decision on our own.

Benjamin Tompkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, CO.  He hates stupidity, and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue.


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