In this historical moment, our literary politics are different. Cultural uses of "nigger," from NWA to The Wire, are discomfitingly accepted as a necessary evil of artistic representation. The logic is "If the word exists in our parole, then we have to deal with it in our art." This middle ground acknowledges the reality of American racism without requiring that all representations of racism must be expunged from the artistic record.
The problem with this attitude, though, is that "acknowledging American racism" is a messy and tortured affair. Those with experience teaching or discussing literature with overtly racist language know what often happens; classes and book groups become discussions about the word rather than the work. This problem is at the heart of Professor Gribben's approach of substituting "nigger" with "slave" so that Huck Finn as novel can be investigated.
Reactions to his workaround have been widely derided, with a fervor that is as curious as it is well-meaning. One group of Gribben's critics wants to protect Twain; they see this emendation as a mortal blow to the integrity of Twain's artistic vision and the internal logic of the novel. Though laudable, this literary idealism forgets, as all idealism does, the practical considerations of literature as a living entity whose existence is under constant evaluation. The fact of the matter, as Gribben notes, is that Huck Finn's influence in the American literary canon is fading, precisely because of our contemporary anxiety about the word "nigger."
My own teaching experience suggests that he is right. Just a few days ago, during a class on Henri Bergson's The Comic in General, I saw the pedagogically destructive force of historical racism. At one point Bergson asks "Why do we laugh at a negro?" As one might imagine, my liberal, 21st Century students, finely attuned to the fault lines of American racial politics, latched onto this line and our class became an hour-long discussion of racist language. This, of course, is a conversation worth having. It is not, however, the only conversation worth having. Their collective anxiety about the word overwhelmed whatever else may have been of interest in the text. My class on comedic theory became a class on American racism, just as Gribben's classes on Huck Finn have become classes on American racism. This has happened in the wider stream of American literature: our cultural knowledge of Huck Finn is that it is a book about race, but few readers can readily say what else it is about.
The other main group of Gribben’s critics accuses him of cultural white-washing, of trying to cover up the ugly reality of white oppression. This line of thinking would have more credence if Gribben were somehow trying to hide what he's doing, and his introduction to the new edition makes it perfectly clear what has been changed from the original text. These charges, such as Ishmael Reed's, don't really seem aware of the complicated nature of the project.
In The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani's articulates this position:
"To censor or redact books on school reading lists is a form of denial: shutting the door on harsh historical realities — whitewashing them or pretending they do not exist."
The brandishing of "censorship" ignores the realities of the problem. People, notably students, are not reading Huck Finn, and its centrality to the American canon is in jeopardy. Should we let this play out in the name of literary idealism? My sense is that Gribben would rather teach the unadulterated text, but the sensibilities of today's students and readers make that nearly impossible. His primary concern is the future-history of Huck Finn and would rather live with a living, imperfect text than a forgotten, pure one.
Given the choice, I think I would hazard the original text, but I also respect Gribben's position. Either way, it may well be that in the long arc of history, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn becomes another victim of the very American racism that spawned it.
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