In 11th grade, my American Literature class read “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” At the time, I was a little more concerned about the Tigers’ march to the World Series than one of the classic American novels, but I do have one pretty strong memory from the two or three weeks the class spent discussing the book.
At the end of the unit, we assembled into groups with the purpose of performing a little theater. Only we weren’t reciting anything written by Mark Twain. We were charged with acting out a courtroom controversy in which a fictional parent sued a make-believe school board for requiring their child read such vile and hurtful language.
It’s commonplace for high school English teachers to discuss the “controversial” nature of “Huckleberry Finn” when they’re teaching it, and my instructor thought a little “Law and Order: Suburbia” would handle that part of the lesson.
I played the role of the schoolteacher in our little charade and was grilled with questions from my classmates-turned-attorneys about my reasons for assigning such an “offensive” book.
To defend my actions, I constantly argued that “Huckleberry Finn” was an important book and my students were capable of handling the language. The “N-word” may be offensive, but that doesn’t mean we should be afraid to read it, especially when the book was set during a time of intense racial conflict.
After all, I said in character, it’s not any worse than the music they’re listening to on the way home and it’s better writing.
I’m pretty sure the rest of the class (or Jury) ruled in my favor, but if Alan Gribben had been in the room, I might not have been so lucky.
He’s the Mark Twain scholar who announced this week that he would be editing a new edition of “Huckleberry Finn” to replace every instance of the word N-word with “slave” in order to make the book more appropriate.
Apparently, this is called pre-emptive censorship. Gribben is trying to lift the material from the text that has earned the book the fourth most “bannings” in the country.
I have to say, I love the idea of preemptive censorship. I just don’t think this is the right place for it.
“Huckleberry Finn” is one of the great American novels and the use of language that is offensive by modern standards is part of that book. It isn’t something you can separate out. That’s like taking the adultery out of “The Scarlet Letter.”
In the wake of the Gribben announcement, almost no one came to his defense. It’s a rare occurrence in this country for Fox News and MSNBC to spear the same person, but Gribben managed to draw fire from both.
Needless to say, there won’t be too many copies of “The New and Improved Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” on American bookshelves.
Instead of attacking Gribben any further, a more productive use of our time should be devoted to this idea of preemptive censorship.
Let’s censor books that are terrible, not ones that have words that make us uncomfortable.
To start, I’d like to enlist M. Night Shyamalan to write a twist ending to “The Catcher in the Rye.” Then we ought to do something about William Faulkner. While we’re at it, let’s make the “The Great Gatsby” one giant episode of The Bachelor.
Classics are enduring for one reason or another. Some endure because they’re well written, others because they’re a great story. Some survive because they capture a moment in history; while others survive because they changed the way we see literature.
So to Gribben, please stop editing good literature when there is so much awful literature that is left alone. To the rest of you, start tearing pages out of books and start inserting more interesting characters and plot developments.
If we’re going to censor anything, let’s make it something that wasn’t any good the first time. I’d rather save the country from bad writing than bad language. Class dismissed.