A good friend of mine (and my former 10th grade English teacher) Donna Dutton, another lovely spirit full of light, posed an thoughtful question to me in an e-mail this morning: What do I think of the revisions to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?

To catch up, an Alabama publisher, NewSouth Books, is going to publish a new version of Huck Finn (as we call it in English-teacher shorthand) with all instances of the n-word replaced. NPR reports that there are other words that will be changed, as well. For example, “half-breed” will be revised to read “half-blood” and so on.

It is fair to say that, as I have grown older, my views with respect to censorship have grown more complex. As a young student, a young scholar of English at a liberal arts university, and a new first-year teacher I was loud with my trumpet that no literature or art should be off limits, censored, or banned. Yet with experience and motherhood has come the understanding that not all “art” has inherent value, simply because it was produced. There are a great many films, for example, that I would never allow to come into our home. There are several I have turned off mid-watch (even before children) because the language offends me. Why should my criteria be different with written material?

Few would dispute that Twain is one of the greatest American novelists and artists of his age, or of any age. I do think that both The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer constitute valuable, worthwhile, thought-provoking artistry. Even more to my personal liking is J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, which I wrote about on the day last year of Salinger’s passing. Catcher is filled with cursing, and yet I do believe they have a purpose. I believe that Twain’s use of extremely culturally charged words also had a purpose—a purpose that is still relevant today.

I weigh this idea, though, with how I feel about more and more expletives being permitted on TV. It has become so rampant and permissive that watching prime time TV with Katie present (even recorded, since she goes to bed near 8:00 PM) is out of the question. Bill and I have a personal philosophy that cursing or, obviously, using hurtful names to disparage others is never okay. We do not teach our children those words, and if they ever hear them elsewhere and start using them, they will be corrected. Yes, intellectually we understand that words are just words—human beings give them arbitrary values and emotional tones. We have both read Stephen Pinker’s work on the subject. Intellectualism, however, is only one facet of our experience as human beings. Whether we like it or not, the words we choose to use do define us. For better or worse, I always wince when I hear someone use a curse word (just as I cringe when one comes into my head in frustration), and I always wonder why that person has chosen not to express himself or herself in a more positive and polite way. Often, I can’t help being offended by those words, depending a little on context. That’s just…me. For better or worse. Perhaps I am a little too subject to my upbringing and cannot look enough outside my own box, it may be argued, but I was raised to use more polite word choice. It’s that Mennonite blood in me, I think.

For me the words I use or don’t use are a way to honor my family, my husband and children now, and my parents and extended family, my elders. We would never dream about using such words in front of my Nana or my grandfathers, so why should I use them any other time?

I step away from myself, though, and I realize that sometimes, the artful use of curse words can be amusing. Satire, farce, social commentary: wielded with skill, even the most powerfully negative words in our culture can be illuminating. I think there must be some part of me that distinguishes between using a curse word simply because we stub our toes and using a curse word to elucidate the human condition as a call for edifying, positive change. Intent?

We can see why this issue is so complicated. My intellectual side pulls me one direction, but my experience with the world and human nature guides me in another.

It would be easier to take an entirely intellectual approach and argue that anything should be permitted in art or expression at any time, and everyone should just “get over it.” I’ve been down that road of thinking before…but then, what about “art” that exploits women, or even children? What happens in a world where there are no boundaries of taste—whatever taste is? Or parameters of right and wrong? It often seems like one of our more logical choices is to choose to celebrate a language, and an art, that revolves around goodness and love. Sure, words may be just words, but they are powerful and impossible to divorce from sociocultural baggage…so why not choose to fill our minds and hearts with good ones?

But back to Twain. Ultimately, do I think he should be bowdlerized? No. Absolutely not. The choice to read his words or not must remain with the individual. Do I think that he would be an easy read for a less mature or experienced reader? No. His humor is sometimes subtle, his writing complex. It might be tempting for some readers to take him at face value—and there is one of the problems. I also taught To Kill a Mockingbird, one of my favorite novels of all time. Harper Lee used the n-word, too, but she was more straightforward about her message: it is easier for young students to see that the only characters who use that word are utterly uneducated buffoons, including the antagonist of the novel. It is easier to teach students the context, for them to see how she uses the word in the mouths of the villains to make a point about racism. Twain is not always as clear, even though his point is similar. With my own children, I will teach them these novels when I am convinced that their reading comprehension is sophisticated enough to deal with the cultural weight of it.

Other films and novels they will have to choose on their own, when they are adults—and that is the point of all that Bill and I seek to teach them. How to make good choices… What to put in their minds and hearts, and above all, why.

I think much would be lost if, in the revision of Twain’s works, we lose the ability as Americans, as people, to have this discussion.

When I taught To Kill a Mockingbird (TKAM), I often read certain passages aloud to my students. We would have a discussion about the n-word. I told them that my choice, as a human being, was that I would not be saying the word when we read. I know that probably offended a handful, and rightfully—it was my own form of personal censorship I guess. Except: they could still read and see the word as it was printed on the page. Each of us has to make her own choices. I supported my colleagues who would read those words aloud, and I respected the logic that led them to do so. It came from a caring, loving place, just as my choices did. Those colleagues were just as important to the freedom of our literature, if not moreso, than I was to the cause of individual choice. All American high school English teachers deal with this issue, and many of us fret about it late at night. I will always maintain that students needed to see how all of us dealt with those words, to know that one day they would have to choose, and that there were good arguments on both sides.

One of the joys of our glorious freedom in this country is that we can still debate this subject in a meaningful way. Gather your joy in thoughtful freedom today!

 

 

 

 

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