January 7, 2011

Huckleberry Finn Gets White-Washed

There has been a great deal of academic strum und drang this week over a new edition of "Huckleberry Finn" in which the N word is being replaced by "slave".  In today's TIMES, the queen bee of literary criticism Michiko Kakutani throws her critical hat in the ring while also trying to calm the tempest.

As she acutely points out, Mark Twain's seminal work seems to create a cultural firestorm on a semi-regular basis as people continue to debate the worth and meaning of this undeniably Great American Novel, one which doesn't quite suit our contemporary tastes.  Overall, she gives a concise history of the ancient and annoying human habit of trying to santizie everything from the Bible and Shakespeare to Normal Mailer, who famously used "fug" instead of the F word in his classic "The Naked And The Dead".

One fact she doesn't point out, perhaps because it's so obvious, is that the original author-approved version of "Huck Finn" will continue to be available in libraries and bookstores here and around the world.  It's really going to be a matter of choice and, frankly, I'd hope that most high school English teachers with something resembling a brain would refuse to teach this historically incorrect version of the story.  The fact is, though, that Twain's novel is in the public domain and has been for many decades, meaning that if you'd like to publish your own version of Huck with all the slow parts or endless digressions taken out (and there are a few!) you are free to do so.  As people sometimes forget, that uber-American principle of freedom of speech is a two-sided coin.

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