Censoring history

Mark Twain has been offending people ever since he began writing. The first instance of his book being banned occurred in 1884, the year “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was first published.

Mark Twain has been offending people ever since he began writing. The first instance of his book being banned occurred in 1884, the year “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was first published. The book was considered “rough, coarse and inelegant,” according the Boston Evening Transcript. Now, the debate that publisher NewSouth Books has created over Huck Finn is whether or not the language is appropriate for the young audience toward which it is targeted.

NewSouth Books proposed a solution to the problem of language—publishing a new edition of the book in which every instance of “Injun” was replaced with “Indian” and every instance of the “n-word” would be replaced with the word “slave.” With over 200 uses of the n-word in the text, they had their work cut out for them.

Unfortunately, the solution NewSouth proposes creates an even more damaging issue—it denies us important historical insight.

The main defense for censorship of the book is that the language makes many students uncomfortable. In a press release on the NewSouth website, writer and Twain scholar Rick Riordan defends the censorship, saying “some teachers find a version without the n-word helpful for classroom teaching.” This is a valid point—racism is a scary topic. But the solution that NewSouth seems to be presenting is to bypass a dialogue in the name of comfort.

Instead of starting a discussion that encourages compassion and empathy, the censorship blocks any chance of a discussion whatsoever. Words can hurt, and it’s understandable that some students and parents would be upset to know that racial slurs are being used in class, and while it is their right to not involve their child, they also need to be aware of the lessons that come with such a discussion. The main issue is how the teacher handles the subject matter—if they don’t feel they can steer the kind of discussions the book entails, they probably shouldn’t be teaching it.

By removing the words from the context of the book, NewSouth seems to be concocting a plot straight out of another banned literary classic: “1984.” In George Orwell’s novel, the government consciously rewrites history in order to maintain its spotless reputation. Let’s face it—the United States has done some shameful things. I won’t go into detail, but examples that come to mind are slavery, the treatment of Native Americans, the treatment of women and the fact that we have allowed “Jersey Shore” to remain on television.

Twain’s book acts as an accurate criticism of our history. By using a version of the book that is true to the writer’s intentions, the themes of the book are clearer. The one thing we need to keep in mind is that the book is a product of its time.

I think that a healthy society needs conflict in order to function properly, and by criticizing our history, we might not have to repeat our mistakes. Instead of hiding our shameful past, I propose we embrace it. NewSouth is definitely taking a page out of Tom Sawyer’s book—they are whitewashing our history in order to cover up an embarrassing aspect of our past.

If this is the future of literature, then it’s only a matter of time before you’ll have to pick up a new copy of “Moby D*ck,” along with a new copy of Nabokov’s “Lolita,” complete with a new of-legal-age heroine. Eventually, by altering all works of art, our culture would be devoid of racial slurs, anti-Semitism, and sexist thinking…right? Wrong.

Being aware of your country’s past doesn’t make you unpatriotic; it makes you responsible. What’s to be gained is a poignant understanding of the evolution of our culture.

Oscar Wilde once said: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book.” By re-writing and re-envisioning classic works, NewSouth is not making the novel “better” or “more moral,” but is instead undercutting Twain’s intentions. By censoring our past, we’ve been denied a genuine look into our own history. Cultural criticism was never a crime, and we shouldn’t be stripping Huck Finn, or Mark Twain, of a voice. ?