Friday, January 07, 2011

This painted child of dirt that stinks and stings…

The world of literature isn’t particularly well known for fast reactions to developments in its realm, but an announcement earlier this week has seen a snowballing effect of, apparently, “furore”. The announcement relates to new versions of The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn being published; the trick being that they are, and there is no other word for it, censored versions.





Alan Gribben, a renowned and respected scholar of Mark Twain, was frustrated to see two of Twain’s finest works, if not indeed two of the greatest novels from America, not included on reading lists at schools. Some research led him to believe that the only reason for this “ban” was the presence of quite deliberate racial slurs in the text. He took the decision, then, to sanitize the descriptions, replacing a dialect heavy “injun” with “Indian” and the infamous “n” word with “slave”.

Now, there has been a great deal of comment around this already, most of it taking a stand against the changes. My initial reaction was “this is wrong” too, I must admit, but with a touch of thought this might not be the great desecration of literature that some are making it out to be. That’s not to say I propose to defend it entirely.

My overall view would be that if the books have been excluded from schools because of the slurs, it is rather the case that they have been excluded because of bad, lazy teaching. Twain used the words he did for a very good reason; you suspect that he may well have anticipated the words would have been reviled as they are one day and thus he wished to encapsulate a time (and all that was as wrong as it was right with it) and a society which used them freely. If schools are prepared to rather just ban something as important as great works of literature rather than teach them in a way that puts them in context – something that is surely required to educate anyway – then there is something fundamentally wrong with the direction education has taken. You cannot and should not airbrush history. However ugly or uncomfortable, history must be faced.




I am not, however, saying that the changes should not have been made for one particular edition. Whatever my views on this being a case of lazy or poor teaching, the general consensus of society is that, simply, it wishes this word to be removed from as many things as is possible.

The “n” word has become the most reviled word in the English language over the last quarter of a century or so; allowed to be used only by, it seems, rap singers and, for some inexplicable reason, film director Quentin Tarantino. As I recall it was in the infamous O.J. Simpson trial that the phrase “the n word” was coined as a replacement for just saying it when the testimony and evidence of one of the detectives, Mark Fuhrman, were called into question after his, shall we say, “liberal” use of the word was exposed.





If removing this word allows a classic of literature to once again be given to and enjoyed by children then I am inclined to not fight against it. However, it is somewhat questionable that it seems acceptable to just replace the word with another slur in the form of “slave”. I can only presume that this is not deemed to be quite as offensive. At least not yet – watch this space.

The decision made here is not exactly without precedent. Numerous film and TV adaptations of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn have, after all, relayed their adventures to millions without including these words. And there’s another example in the world of literature, lest we forget – Lambs’ Tales From Shakespeare presented heavily sanitized versions of The Bard’s works. I have no idea if this caused a fuss or furore at the time, but it did open up the world of Shakespeare’s magnificent plays to many who otherwise would not have experienced them.





A lot of people have presumed to assume what Mark Twain would have made of these changes. A number of them have sided with a statement he made when a printing press presumed to change the punctuation marks on one his texts; something along the lines of “they should be shot without being given time to pray.”. I wouldn’t have the first clue as to what Mr Twain would have made of it, but I would hope that he would acknowledge something that has been lost in all the fuss around these new versions – that is his original texts shall not be erased entire, that these changes pertain to one version only. For a random example, when The Rolling Stones changed the words to “Let’s Spend The Night Together” to “let’s spend some time together” for an American TV show, the original version of the song didn’t vanish, after all, and the result was that the song was heard by as wide an audience as possible. The rap singers who I mentioned as being the apparent custodians of the word causing so much offence are known to produce “radio friendly” versions of their (ahem) “songs”, omitting this word and indeed several others.





If it’s the case that these two edited versions exist purely for schools and for the more sensitive parent, then I see no reason to stand in the way. The original versions of the books shall remain available, now and presumably forever. With some good fortune exposure to these wonderful stories will encourage yet more generations to discover the sheer joys of literature. A touch of sensitivity-inspired editing is a very, very small price to pay in comparison.

One thing I do take offence to in regards of this whole matter is the comments made about Alan Gribben. Many people have labelled him as “stupid”, “crazy” and several other slurs which question his sanity and intelligence. He is a man with a great passion for literature in general and Mark Twain in specific, and is doing everything he possibly can to expose his works to as wide an audience as possible. One suspects he expected such a backlash but pushed ahead anyway. As far as I can see, looking at the wider picture, he deserves a great deal of credit for his actions, not the widespread vilification he is getting.

Of course, equal to that is the delight I take in the fact that so many people still clearly take literature so seriously and so passionately. Literature is worth fighting for, not about.



as well as being excellent to each other, read!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
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