Wednesday 22 November 2017

Rewriting the past misses the point

Rust never sleeps, Neil Young affirmed way back in 1979. Neither, it seems, does political correctness, which has caused an American publisher to bring out an edition of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in which the word "nigger" has been replaced some 200 times by the term "slave".

Twain's masterpiece, of course, has always been a troubling text for the culturally and socially sensitive, and down through the decades it has been banned from various libraries and schools in the US by self-appointed arbiters of public morality.

That's not to deny that, by today's standards, the book's frequent use of the 'N' word makes for uncomfortable reading, but so does Shakespeare's depiction of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice -- not to mention, nearer our own time, the careless racial stereotyping occasionally to be found in the essays of the impeccably liberal George Orwell.

Historical context, though, is everything and if we're to ban or censor books simply because their attitudes don't conform to our contemporary sensibilities, a lot of literature will be lost to us for not meeting our requirements on class, race, religious tolerance or sexual equality.

Alan Gribben, who calls himself a Twain scholar and who has edited this new expurgated edition, argues that the "racial insults" in Huck Finn "repulse modern-day readers". But is it not salutary for them to be repulsed and to ponder the historical chasm that yawns between now and when the book was written?

And he doesn't seem to have considered the possibility that the book's racial usage doesn't necessarily represent the author's attitudes. Certainly, the famous -- or infamous -- passage in which a woman asks the young Huck if anyone was hurt in an explosion and he replies "No, ma'am. Killed a nigger" not only says something about the book's young hero and the wider white society in which he could utter such a casual remark, but was intended by Twain to convey precisely that.

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