Charles Keefer's Blog

Mark Twain

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I was in Key West for the last week and picked up a newspaper only once. There, on the front page, was a one-paragraph refer to a story inside that said some idiot publisher wanted to put out “Huckleberry Finn” and “Tom Sawyer” but with the modern improvement of replacing the word “nigger” with the word “slave” and the word “injun” with the word “Indian.”

There also was a photo of Nancy Pelosi with her arm almost around John Boehner.

I had to pick which was more obscene to show the bar tender. And which one she might relate to.

Now I can happily imagine Nancy Pelosi whacking John Boehner with a cane, which has happened before in Congress, but I know it isn’t going to happen in our lifetime or be of interest to a Key West bar tender.

What I can’t imagine happening is this mush:

“I found myself right out of graduate school at Berkeley not wanting to pronounce that word (nigger) when I was teaching either ‘Huckleberry Finn’ or ‘Tom Sawyer,’ ” said Alan Gribben, a professor of English at Auburn.

It was his idea to combine “Huckleberry Finn” and “Tom Sawyer” into one book, so people would read “Huckleberry Finn” as well as “Tom Sawyer” without the “niggers” and “injuns”.

As you may or may not remember, Berkeley was the home of the Free Speech Movement in 1964. That wasn’t about whether you should read Mark Twain in the original. It was about whether students had the right to support off-campus issues including civil rights. It evolved from the Freedom Riders and the Freedom Summer project to register African Americans in Mississippi to vote.

At the time, the only students who had the freedom to speak or organize on campus were those in the Republican or Democratic clubs and the faculty was subject to a loyalty oath.

We’ve come a long way since then, but here we have a Berkeley graduate wanting to change a San Francisco author’s words in ways that probably would not promote the Free Speech Movement or civil rights and would trample on history.

If anyone can argue that Mark Twain’s books were not in support of civil rights, speak up now so I will know who to take a cane to.

You can’t soften history by not using the word “nigger” any more than you can make a citizen out of an “unborn fetus”. You have to be born in the United States to be a citizen and have any rights and you have to know the word “nigger” to have any conception of how those rights were denied to generations of American citizens.

“Tom Sawyer” was written in 1876. “Huckleberry Finn” was written in 1884. At the time, in the South, niggers were niggers and injuns were injuns. Mark Twain pointed out that they were people.

In case you are wondering, the bartender was outraged that anyone would rewrite Mark Twain.

I’m still not sure whether she knows who John Boehner is.

And I wish I didn’t.

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Written by Charles Keefer

January 6, 2011 at 9:08 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. 1984 is apt. Remember, the “Memory Hole.” And don’t forget that “Newspeak” was written to specifically constrain the poetry of language — a “double-plus” good idea?

    Scott Campbell

    January 16, 2011 at 9:48 pm


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