I ran across a story yesterday about NewSouth, Inc’s intent to publish an expurgated version of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in which the n-word has been replaced. At first I assumed this to be some sort of fringe, crackpot effort. Upon reading further, however, I realized that a lot of thought had gone into the decision, and that the people behind the effort seemed sincere. That their objectives are misguided and ultimately untenable in light of their own stated beliefs only makes the decision to go ahead with the project that much more confusing and disappointing.
Before I question the individual and collective rationales that have led what appear to be otherwise decent people to the precipice of insanity, I want to make a larger point. Anyone over the age of twenty knows that you do not alter an author’s text to fit your world view. No matter how personally offensive you find an author’s words, no matter how society may have changed since a text was written, no matter how difficult open discussion of an author’s work might be, you do not, ever — ever — change an author’s text to make your life easier or better. You can write your own book, you can write volumes of criticism about the original text, but you’re not allowed to rewrite history for your own ends.
Everybody knows this, and until now I assumed that literary scholars and publishers understood the reasoning behind this prohibition better than most. That the initiator of this particular act of literary barbarism is Twain scholar Alan Gribben, a long-time English professor and head of the English Department at Auburn University at Montgomery, is almost mind-boggling. The publishers aiding and abetting Professor Gribben at NewSouth are Randall Williams and Suzanne La Rosa.
Anticipating pushback against his bastard child, Professor Gribben has already gone on a name-calling offensive:
Gribben has no illusions about the new edition’s potential for controversy. “I’m hoping that people will welcome this new option, but I suspect that textual purists will be horrified,” he said.
If you’re not familiar with the hallowed halls of academia, this is the kind of thing that professors say when they they’re trying to protect shaky intellectual turf. Accusing people of textual purism is a transparent preemptive attempt to demonize those who object to Professor Gribben’s literary crime. It also conveniently ignores the fact that intentionally changing words in order to make a work more appealing or salable has nothing to do with textual purism. What Professor Gribben is doing is not disputing or advocating for a version of Huckleberry Finn, but actively rewriting Mark Twain in a demented attempt to save Twain from himself.
That NewSouth has decided to publish Professor Gribben’s version of history is perhaps understandable from a business perspective, but disappointing in terms of the cultural stewardship we hope all publishers embrace. Again, no dissection of the publisher’s motives need be undertaken in order to understand how flawed this decision is and how completely it undercuts the foundations of authorship, history and culture. Any publisher’s attempt to alter an author’s words is a violation not just of that author’s work, but of every author’s work, and anyone who proposes going down that road for any reason — and I mean any reason — by definition lacks the necessary steel to assess, edit or publish literature. [ Read more ]