Sanitizing the Classics

Michelle Malkin, James Taranto, Keith Staskiewicz, and others have been piling on Alan Gribben and New South Press for planning to issue an edition of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn that replace the n-word and ‘injun’ with more politically correct terms. Gribben’s introduction to the volume explains his reasons:

Far more controversial than this reuniting of Twain’s boy books will be the editor’s decision to eliminate two racial slurs that have increasingly formed a barrier to these works for teachers, students, and general readers. The editor thus hopes to introduce both books to a wider readership than they can currently enjoy….

The n-word possessed, then as now, demeaning implications more vile than almost any insult that can be applied to other racial groups. There is no equivalent slur in the English language. As a result, with every passing decade this affront appears to gain rather than lose its impact. Even at the level of college and graduate school, students are capable of resenting textual encounters with this racial appellative….

We may applaud Twain’s ability as a prominent American literary realist to record the speech of a particular region during a specific historical era, but abusive racial insults that bear distinct connotations of permanent inferiority nonetheless repulse modern-day readers. Twain’s two books do not deserve ever to join that list of literary “classics” he once humorously defined as those “which people praise and don’t read,” yet the long-lofty status of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn has come under question in recent decades. In this connection, it seems relevant to remember that Twain habitually read aloud his day’s writings to an audience gathered on the porch of his summer retreat overlooking Elmira, New York, watching and listening for reactions to each manuscript page. He likewise took cues about adjusting his tone from lecture platform appearances, which provided him with direct responses to his diction. As a notoriously commercial writer who watched for every opportunity to enlarge the mass market for his works, he presumably would have been quick to adapt his language if he could have foreseen how today’s audiences recoil at racial slurs in a culturally altered country.

Gribben notes that middle-school and high-school teachers are increasingly deciding not to teach these books because of the controversy that their use of objectionable language promotes. (I have dealt with similar issues in assigning Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Killers,” but at least there the people using the n-word are criminals with no redeeming qualities whatever.) Gribben would rather have students encounter a sanitized version of the books than not encounter them at all.

Now I deplore political correctness, and the attitude that makes Twain almost unteachable in many parts of the country, as much as anyone. Indeed, I’ve spent much of my academic life fighting it. But Alan Gribben has been on the battlefield fighting it ahead of me, and I respect his decision to defend classics of Western Civilization and promote them even if that does require some compromises. In an ideal world, people would read and teach Twain, understanding the differences between his time and ours and making allowances for them. In fact, in such a world, people might reflect more on the oddity of a term that African-Americans call one another casually and frequently being regarded as so deeply objectionable even when used in the mouths of literary characters to illustrate the morally problematic character of antebellum Missouri. But in the world we inhabit, the choice, in many places, is between a sanitized Twain and no Twain at all. Gribben not only makes the right choice himself but enables others to do the same.

Ful disclosure: I know Alan Gribben, and am fortunate enough to count him as a friend. I write the above, however, not out of friendship, but out of fairness. He has been a courageous defender of Western Civilization and, specifically, American literary classics for his entire professional career. He is the hero of Chapter 9, “The Battle of Texas,” in Richard Bernstein’s critique of political correctness, The Dictatorship of Virtue. Just over twenty years ago, Jonathan Yardley praised him for having “the courage to lead the fight against this latest exercise in high-minded fascism.” (The day that appeared in the Washington Post—Christmas Eve 1990we had the Gribbens over to a dinner of “Swiss chocolate, Virginia ham, and Australian wine,” to fulfill Yardley’s wishes.) Of course, none of this entails that Gribben’s decision about the new edition of Twain is right. But the fact that it’s the decision, not of some politically correct hack, but of a noted Twain scholar who has led the academic fight against political correctness, should make critics think twice.

One thought on “Sanitizing the Classics

  1. I’m not sure why this is controversial or even news. When I was a child, my parents bought for me bowdlerized versions of the classics.

    Wasn’t there a company a while back that produced versions of movies with the vile stuff removed? I know they were sued out of existence. Now that bothers me: that bowdlerization of which the Left disapproves is banned; bowdlerization that furthers the Left’s goals is approved.

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