Leave Twain alone

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - kath­leen­parker@wash­post.com

While sort­ing through the peren­nial lip-purs­ing tem­pest about a cer­tain word in Mark Twain’s “ The Ad­ven­tures of Huck­le­berry Finn” — the “N-word,” as we now say it — I turned for in­spi­ra­tion to the mas­ter him­self.

“ The dif­fer­ence be­tween the al­most-word & the right word is . . . the dif­fer­ence be­tween the light­ning bug and the light­ning,” Twain wrote.

This is a fa­mil­iar re­frain among writ­ers and editors, who toil in soli­tary agony — ag­o­nize in soli­tary toil? — over the per­fect com­bi­na­tions of vow­els and con­so­nants. Find­ing just the right word, when it oc­curs, is the stuff of arias.

But what about elim­i­nat­ing just the “wrong” word? This is for the edi­tor to urge and, in a right­eous world, the writer to de­cide.

The lat­est af­front on Twain’s word se­lec­tion, re­plac­ing that N-word with “slave” to pro­tect the sen­si­bil­i­ties of mod­erns, is the work of a well-in­ten­tioned heretic. What was it some­one or other said? The road to Hell is paved with good in­ten­tions. Then again, Twain him­self rec­om­mended Heaven for the cli­mate and Hell for the com­pany.

While on Earth, let me add my voice to the cho­rus of those who, in the name of all that is hal­lowed, ob­ject to the al­ter­ation of lit­er­a­ture for the ben­e­fit of il­lit­er­ates. The fel­low who edited the new Twain edi­tion, Alan Gribben, isn’t il­lit­er­ate, of course, and there­fore has no ex­cuse. He’s a pro­fes­sor of English at Auburn Uni­ver­sity. But he aims to in­crease the like­li­hood that non­read­ers will read more Twain if the author isn’t so of­fen­sive.

No one would find this more of­fen­sive than Twain, who was, not least, re­li­ably pithy about the small­minded and overly sen­si­tive. And no one would ar­gue that the word in ques­tion isn’t emo­tion­ally charged and, in cer­tain con­texts, highly of­fen­sive. The is­sue here isn’t whether the word is good or bad (I per­son­ally de­spise it), but whether one should re­write an­other’s lit­er­ary work. The sim­ple an­swer is, no. As even Gribben con­cedes, in Twain’s re­mark­able work, his use of the word was both com­mon to the times and an in­dict­ment of slav­ery. If read­ers can’t un­der­stand this, then per­haps a teacher might en­lighten them. The pur­pose of read­ing isn’t just to run words past a pupil’s pupils but to en­hance un­der­stand­ing and re­veal truth through what we call “ teach­ing.”

That some teach­ers and li­brar­i­ans find Twain of­fen­sive is re­gret­table. But let’s be clear: These facts are an in­dict­ment of teach­ers and li­brar­i­ans who should find an­other line of work, not proof that Twain needs fixin’.

At what point, be­sides, do we stop with the red pen­cil? When will we have san­i­tized the li­brary such that no one’s feel­ings are hurt? And who gets to de­cide? These are not new ques­tions, but they bear re­peat­ing as we seem to know less and less.

Ex­cis­ing the par­tic­u­lar word in ques­tion would keep busy­bod­ies oc­cu­pied for the fore­see­able fu­ture. Other of­fend­ing writ­ers in­clude such lu­mi­nar­ies as Wil­liam Faulkner, Flan­nery O’Con­nor, Robert Penn War­ren and Her­man Melville, among count­less oth­ers. Were these writ­ers racist? We can­not read minds, but it seems to me that racism and the sort of worldly in­tel­li­gence that in­spires men and women to art are in­com­pat­i­ble. Re­lat­edly, the in­ex­haustibly quotable Twain wrote:

“Broad, whole­some, char­i­ta­ble views of men and things can­not be acquired by veg­e­tat­ing in one lit­tle corner of the earth all one’s life­time.”

More to the point, these writ­ers se­lected each word painstak­ingly to cre­ate a world they en­vi­sioned as nec­es­sary to their pur­pose. That the world has changed, and our lan­guage with it, is no ar­gu­ment for rewrit­ing or re­con­struct­ing the cre­ator’s in­tent. To do so is both an as­sault on in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty that should be sacro­sanct, and an in­sult to the in­tel­li­gence of those whose minds we at­tempt to mold.

A teacher above all oth­ers should be ashamed.

Is the N-word prob­lem­atic in a nation for­ever shack­led to a racist, slave-own­ing past? Ab­so­lutely. But re­mov­ing it from books won’t erad­i­cate it from his­tory, nor al­ter the pain it pro­vokes. Should we talk about the harm it did and still does? Cer­tainly.

But se­lec­tively edit­ing lit­er­a­ture, like his­tory, is de­nial by an­other name. When it comes to de­nial and truth, as ev­ery­one knows, never the Twain shall meet.


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