Censoring Huckleberry Finn

A couple of news items have caught the attention of my book-reading friends, so I thought I would deviate from the review format of this blog to discuss them.

The big news, of course, is that a publisher called NewSouth Books is making an edition of Huckleberry Finn with the “obscene” parts removed. This is, depending on who you ask, either laughable or horrible. Mark Twain was fully aware of the evils of the world, and wrote his books to attack those problems. By removing the objectionable content, these misguided people are ignoring, rather than addressing, the point of the book! Do they realize that by making this classic safe to read, they’re weakening the very things that make it a classic?

On first glance, I agree with all these arguments. I definitely have the same temperament as my book- and freedom-loving peers who are angered that Huckleberry Finn is being changed. And yet, I can’t help but think there’s a different side to this debate.

You see, I would bet that most of these people who are insisting that this classic must be preserved are too politically correct to dare use the word nigger themselves. Admit it, the previous sentence made you feel a little uncomfortable, didn’t it? You asked yourself, “Why couldn’t he have written ‘the N-word‘ instead?” But no, the word is nigger. If you hold the words in Huckleberry Finn to be sacrosanct, but you’d never dare to read it aloud, then I have to wonder: What’s your fucking problem?

Yeah, nigger is a powerful, even dangerous word. The thing that makes you uncomfortable with it is the same thing that makes people want to censor it. If you adapt your thoughts and words in daily life in order to avoid the word, isn’t it understandable that someone would want to adapt the books they read in the same way?

I’m not saying that the planned censorship is right; I’m just saying that anyone can be wrong. If I’m correct, then a lot of people on both sides of the debate are in the wrong in different ways. And if I’m not correct, well then, that just furthers my point that anyone can be wrong! Even me! If everyone can make mistakes, and I can’t necessarily be a perfect arbiter of right and wrong, then how can I tell these people not to edit this book?

The standard answer to that question is “But they’re changing the book! I can’t sit idly by and let them make mistakes when they have an effect on me and the other people who read it.” But that’s the beauty of it. You see, Huckleberry Finn is in the public domain. Anyone can make any changes that they want. You could translate it into French, or re-write it so that all the white people are slaves, or even have aliens abduct Huck at the end of the first chapter so that you can fill the rest of the book with an entirely new story. None of that invalidates the fact that there is an “original” version of the work. Because it’s public domain, someone can always re-publish the classic version even if the watered-down one (somehow) becomes a success.

I prefer the original. Most likely, you do, too. But ask yourself, when was the last time you thought about Huckleberry Finn, much less had a conversation with a friend about it? Probably a long time ago. This new version, even if it is misguided, is creating dialog and informing debate about the book, just as the public domain was meant to do.

(In fact, I remember the last time I thought much about Huckleberry Finn before this. It was about a year ago, when my dad showed me a radio play of it that he had obtained. We listened to the story of The Duke and The Dauphin, and both agreed that the play had brought alive a chapter that we’d always felt was kind of dry and unnecessary before. In other words, a re-interpretation of the public domain work — without most uses of nigger removed, ironically — added to the value of the original for us.)

This brings me to the other recent news item that has been circulating in the past week. As we enter the new year, there has been a movement to point out that nothing new had entered the public domain in the past year, nor would it in the coming one. Movie and merchandizing being what they are, it’s worthwhile for the entertainment industry to lobby to keep extending the limits of copyright. Technically, it’s not Unconstitutional (the US Constitution requires that works become public domain eventually, but it doesn’t say anything about continually increasing the delay). However, it definitely is harmful to our ability to appreciate culture.

Remember when George Lucas changed the original Star Wars movies? Fans were outraged, but for several years, only the new versions were available to buy. One person’s decision was enough to limit your choices, even taking away a story that had been available in the past. That is what people are worried about with this Huckleberry Finn issue, but the difference is that Star Wars was not in the public domain. And that very contrast shows why the public domain is so important.

I, for one, congratulate NewSouth Books on the decision to use their right to remix the book. I welcome the debate it’s bringing, as well as the spotlight that it’s shining on the original work. I don’t plan to buy this new version, of course, and I’ll probably snicker when it’s forgotten a few years later, but they can make their own choices. From what I can see so far, the dialog they are inspiring is doing a great service to Twain.

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