Thursday, January 6, 2011

On inoculation

(Updated twice below.)

(Updated a third time, if you count this: Greetings to visitors from Batocchio's Jon Swift Memorial Roundup for 2011.)

Item #1: In 2007, not quite 30 years after the World Health Organization declared smallpox to have been eradicated, the British Medical Journal sponsored a debate on what should be done with the remaining samples of the smallpox virus, currently kept in ultrasecure WHO facilities. Some epidemiologists and opponents of biological weapons research argue that the remaining stockpiles of the virus should be destroyed as the first and necessary step to making the possession or use of the virus a crime against humanity. Others insist that the maintenance of the stockpiles is a necessary evil, albeit one of horrific proportions, since "eradication" doesn't mean that the virus might not continue to exist, either clandestinely or in undiscovered cases, and the only currently known treatment for smallpox is vaccine made from the virus itself; there is no known antiviral drug. Immunity, if it is to come, must come through exposure.

Item #2: From Publishers Weekly comes this news (emphasis added):
Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a classic by most any measure—T.S. Eliot called it a masterpiece, and Ernest Hemingway pronounced it the source of "all modern American literature." Yet, for decades, it has been disappearing from grade school curricula across the country, relegated to optional reading lists, or banned outright, appearing again and again on lists of the nation's most challenged books, and all for its repeated use of a single, singularly offensive word: "nigger.'"

Twain himself defined a "classic" as "a book which people praise and don't read." Rather than see Twain's most important work succumb to that fate, Twain scholar Alan Gribben and NewSouth Books plan to release a version of Huckleberry Finn, in a single volume with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, that does away with the "n" word (as well as the "in" word, "Injun") by replacing it with the word "slave."

"This is not an effort to render Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn colorblind," said Gribben, speaking from his office at Auburn University at Montgomery, where he's spent most of the past 20 years heading the English department. "Race matters in these books. It's a matter of how you express that in the 21st century." […]

"After a number of talks, I was sought out by local teachers, and to a person they said we would love to teach this novel, and Huckleberry Finn, but we feel we can't do it anymore. In the new classroom, it's really not acceptable." Gribben became determined to offer an alternative for grade school classrooms and "general readers" that would allow them to appreciate and enjoy all the book has to offer. "For a single word to form a barrier, it seems such an unnecessary state of affairs," he said.

The new, bowdlerized version of "Huckleberry Finn" is part of the Great Illustrated Classics series, which apparently has a track record of injecting arbitrary, bizarre, and edge-softening changes (the word "Disneyfication" has been used) into classics of children's literature.

This is where we've arrived: The presence of the word "nigger" in "Huckleberry Finn" has made it the literary equivalent of the last sample of smallpox virus -- so dangerous our only options are to bottle it up so that only experts can get to it, or destroy it completely. Any other alternative risks letting the word loose where it could fall into the hands of madmen.

Kevin Drum at Mother Jones puts the dilemma this way:

Given that choice, I guess I'd bowdlerize. After all, the original text will remain available, and teachers can explain the wording change to their classes if they want to. (Though even that's probably difficult.) And frankly, I doubt that the power of the novel is compromised all that much for 17-year-olds by doing this. In fact, given the difference in the level of offensiveness of the word nigger in 2010 vs. 1884, it's entirely possible that in 2010 the bowdlerized version more closely resembles the intended emotional impact of the book than the original version does. Twain may have meant to shock, but I don't think he ever intended for the word to completely swamp the reader's emotional reaction to the book. Today, though, that's exactly what it does.

In any case, the only realistic alternative is that Huckleberry Finn vanishes from high schools and becomes a book taught solely at the university level. Maybe that's better. But I doubt it.

"Swamp the reader's emotional reaction?" Maybe. I'm at least somewhat sympathetic to that line of thinking. Although the "emotional reaction" of readers/listeners -- simply to words that sound like "nigger" but have no more etymological connection than "Miss" has to "Mississippi" -- has exposed a lot of very, very foolish people over the years.

Of course, is it the two-syllable word being moved out of sight here, or is it the ugly but very real idea behind it? It would be nice to feel sure it's the former, but it's hard to tell. I'm reminded of Gore Vidal's decision, in his sequel to Myra Breckenridge, to replace various allegedly-obscene words in the text of the novel with the names of the anti-pornography justices on the Supreme Court. Whatever they thought of the ideas obviously behind the substituted words, they certainly couldn’t object to the words themselves. (And yet, curiously enough, Vidal's critics still weren't happy.)

To the extent that NewSouth Books' edition contributes in its small way to the whitewashing of American history, it's offensive, regardless of the motive. But for my own part, I'd probably be okay -- grudging, uneasy, but finally okay -- if the "revised" text were clearly and plainly marked as being revised, so that no child or adult could pick the book up without understanding that it's been trimmed, nor could they get into the story without having at least some idea of how and why it was trimmed. Unfortunately, there's good reason to believe that this won't happen -- that NewSouth Books will slide the changes in under the radar of all but the most observant reader. And, as if it needs pointing out, high school readers don't look for publishing information in the front pages of a book, and they don't stay current with Publishers Weekly.

I suspect Drum's being disingenuous when he remarks, "teachers can explain the wording change to their classes if they want to." If teachers wanted to -- or, more to the point, if they felt safe trying -- we wouldn't need this cleaned-up edition by a "Twain expert" to begin with. (And given the realities of marketing and purchasing budgets, I'm less convinced than Drum is that the bowdlerized "Finn" won't eventually be the only version easily available in most bookstores and libraries.) I suspect this edition of "Finn" isn't designed to help anyone "teach the controversy;" it's designed to help bury it, quietly and completely.

All because we can't think of a better way to handle an offensive word than as if it were smallpox virus. And, ironically, probably the best argument for keeping at least a sample of the smallpox virus around is that, without it, there's no way to inoculate against it in the future.

"Nigger" is a word to be treated with contempt, but not one to hide, or hide from.

(Update #1: Steve at No More Mister Nice Blog draws a nice comparison between the NewSouth version of "Huckleberry Finn" and the House GOP version of the Constitution.)

(Update #2: Here's what Twain himself had to say on the subject of literary second-guessers.)

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