Monday, January 10, 2011

Would Twain Give a Fig?

I hear that a new version of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn  will be published without the N-word. This possibly well-intentioned censorship has sparked a lively debate, as one would hope.

I must admit that my first reaction was "Oh, good grief!" Huckleberry Finn was written as a scathing satire on racism - not a rafting adventure for children. Anyone picking it up should be prepared to grapple with 19th century sentiments and vocabulary. You don't bring a little puppy to the off-leash dog park!

Also, the book is now over a hundred years old (which is why anyone can mess with it as they like) and readers should know that they can't apply the layers of modern day meanings to a word commonly used back then -- even a word that has become so currently offensive that I, as a little brown dog, won't even write it here. I don't want to attract the wrong kind of search engine traffic to my humble blog.

Every time people apply their modern sensibilities to works of art and alter them to suit their most enlightened selves, following generations eventually look back and roll their eyes. Think of all those plaster fig leaves glued to naked statues' private parts.

At least fig leaves can usually be removed and anatomy restored to former glory. I am sure I am not alone in wanting to bite the folks who went for more permanent solutions -- wielding hammers to knock off offensive bits. Sadly, what is done is done. As we dogs know, unlike silly haircuts, docked tails do not grow back.

At least they didn't blow them up with dynamite.

Buddhas of Bamiyan photographed in 1979,
destroyed with dynamite by the Taliban in 2001
because they were offensive "idols"
Thankfully, the written word is more durable than statuary. Books are rarely one-of-kind. Ephemeral as paper or pixels may seem, editions tend to proliferate like feral cats. It is difficult to obliterate every copy -- as hard as book burners might try.

Yet most words are not carved into stone. Stories are easily and often translated -- changed intentionally to suit the audience or inevitably as they move from one language to another. Literary fig leaves are applied with abandon by editors, censors and those adapting stories in the name of children. Luckily, fig leaves can be applied to one edition and not affect the original work, assuming it remains in existence.

It should be remembered that Huckleberry Finn has already been adapted many of times before for print and for the screen. Dozens of versions abound on booksellers' shelves - many abridged and edited "for a brisker read" or for young audiences. As for movie versions, I doubt that Mickey Rooney or Elijah Wood used the N-word in their portrayals of Huck. For better or for worse, people freely transform stories -- or pirate parts of stories -- to make them relevant and meaningful to new audiences and generations.

Disney's star is Elijah Wood
who later played Frodo in LOTR
Nothing wrong with a little transformation, eh? When is the last time you read the original Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales? They are such a gruesome gathering of characters and violent ends that few modern parents welcome them on the nursery bookshelf. They have been reworked and transformed countless times to suit just about anybody. And whether you like your fairy tales Disneyfied, reforged in the fires of political correctness, or consumed raw in the original Danish -- you get to chose. Because all the versions continue to exist, unlike those poor Buddhas of Bamiyan.

For the most part, copyright laws protect living authors and not-too-long-dead authors from people stealing or messing with their words too much. And up until the invention of the personal computer, changing words took a fair bit of effort and was mostly left to publishers. These electronic days, it is a simple thing for anyone to alter words of a story -- even personalize them -- with a few taps on a keyboard.

My Susan's sister shared this interesting example. A reader downloaded a story written by a living author. In the story, one character refers to another character as "honey." For this particular reader, the word "honey" was so offensive and brought up so many personal, unpleasant memories of her ex, that she couldn't read the story. There was also a scene of domestic violence that was very upsetting to her.

So this modern-day reader did a find/replace. She selected all the occurrences of "honey" and replaced them with "dear." She also deleted completely the passage of domestic strife. She then read the story again, fell in love with it and raved about it online -- while admitting her changes. (The author was so outraged he or she removed the story from the online world forever.)

Was it wrong of that reader to alter another's work of art for her own personal experience. She wasn't re-publishing it or making any money from it - it was just for her enjoyment. It was just an itty bitty fig leaf.

Personally, I dislike Richard Adam's portrayal of dogs as mindless, brutal killing machines so much that it is hard for me to enjoy that bunny book Watership Down. What if I just... changed it...

"There's a cheetah loose in the woods!"

"Come back! Come back and fight! Cheetahs aren't dangerous!"
General Woundwort, Watership Down
I understand the reason this new sanitized version of Huckleberry Finn is going to press is because the N-word is so problematic to current society that many people just won't pick up the book at all. They say even professors are afraid to have this great classic on their reading lists. So, is it better to get people to read Twain's story with the fig leaf word "slave" or have them avoid a great book all together?

Fig leaves certainly bring us comfort. They make the difficult easier to gaze upon. But to never be upset or challenged by differing perspectives -- never having to grapple with the layers of meaning embedded by the artist's culture, era and intent -- is like having a tasty, chewy bone delivered intravenously. It's just not that satisfying...

Whatever you or I think in the end, this new figified version of Twain's Huckleberry Finn will be released, added to the line-up of available versions, and read by many. One can only hope that this more comfortable version will allow lots of new readers to reach for Huckleberry Finn, fall in love with Twain's story and perhaps wonder what lies beneath the fig leaves. Maybe they will eventually pick up the original.

As the wise scribes of Wikipedia point out:

"The expression fig leaf has a pejorative metaphorical sense meaning as a cover for any thing or behavior that might be considered shameful, with the implication that the cover is only a token gesture and the truth is obvious to all who choose to see it." 

"Argh! I hope someone unlgues this fig leaf soon...but carefully!"
Portrait of strongman Eugen Sandow (1867-1925) 
by Benjamin J. Falk (1853-1925)

1 comment:

  1. This is the most balanced and interesting thing I've read on this topic.