It has been a long time since I’ve read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The Mark Twain story I remember most-clearly from high school was The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg, a short and uncomplicated but very-satisfying account of how the old established families of a small town trap themselves in what they had thought would prove a profitable lie. It’s a nice account of people coming together to use sanctimony as a blunt weapon to claim a prize, and ultimately failing at it.
The Liberal Ironist understands why Professor Alan Gribben decided to publish versions of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer scrubbed of all racial epithets. Professor Gribben said he wanted to broaden access to these classic novels to schools that have banned the books because of these epithets. Some good could be done if this is the only way these students will be able to read these books in school. The issue is the book-banning mentality which these concerns foster, and the precedent set by editing classic books so as not to offend testy sensibilities.
Claiming offense is the modern form of political bullying. Our current cultural problem is not the use of offensive language, it is this smuggled assumption that what is sacred is not great art, historical accuracy or authenticity–and Mark Twain’s works among others excels at all 3–but the sensibilities and pretense of good taste of activists. It doesn’t matter if this political scrubbing is supposedly for the benefit of society’s least-advantaged; the fact remains that in practice it does nothing for the least-advantaged, and it is just a means that certain activists limit the worldly wisdom of students.
I believe Professor Alan Gribben’s intentions are good; he apparently loves Mark Twain. That said, his re-write violates the spirit of Mark Twain’s novels, a point made briefly but eloquently in the New York Times this week.
If there is substance to the offense people take at the use of a certain kind of language, then there is merit to an insightful detractor of the society that could produce that burning sense of injustice portraying what he thinks to be wrong with it as accurately as he can. That’s what Mark Twain was up to, and his novels’ capacity to shock today is a positive good, testifying as it does to his ability to accurately represent a time and a place which he found morally-abominable. An expositor of Twain (however well-intentioned) responding to a political grievance culture where activists assume the role of representative for common sensibilities and good taste, cannot update Twain, who is remembered precisely for standing up to the Pharisaical enforcers of polite opinion.