« Making a case | Main | Ashes, Ashes, we all stand up! »

The Jim Affair

Your Humble Blogger has been meaning to write about the Jim controversy. I want to get it right, though, as I think many if not most Gentle Readers disagree with me about it.

The issue, of course, is that Alan Gribben in The NewSouth Edition of Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn takes liberties with the original text, most controversially removing the word nigger from the book entirely. This has been described as the downfall of western civilization.

I am not outraged.

I mostly line up with Colin McEnroe on this one, although I would put my emphasis somewhat differently.

Do you know the story about James Michener, who when a visitor to his house would commiserate that such-and-such a film version had ruined one of his books, would pull a shocked face, leap up and run to the bookshelf and grab a copy of the book in question, flip through it frantically, and then slump in relief that it had not, in fact, been ruined. It was all still there. Huck Finn is all still there.

In wordier, earlier language: If the endeavour to improve the picture or the statue should be unsuccessful, the beauty of the original would be destroyed, and the injury be irreparable. In such a case let the artist refrain from using the chisel or the pencil: but with the works of the poet no such danger occurs, and the critic need not be afraid of employing his pen; for the original will continue unimpaired, although his own labours should immediately be consigned to oblivion. That is from the preface to the Family Shakespeare; Thomas Bowdler’s edition of Shakespeare without the naughty bits. My own experience of the Bard was greatly enhanced because of the tradition of Bowdlerising the works for youth; I happily compared my school’s texts with my parents’ copies, looking for the dirty bits to pass along to my classmates. I remember being outraged to discover that one of my high school classes was using a version cut for length, after examining an omitted passage and being unable to put any interpretation on it that was, you know, a bit rude.

I can’t say that my parents encouraged me to find the dick jokes, tho’ now I come to think of it, my mother it was who pointed out the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon. But my parents did have a complete set, without which I would certainly never have enjoyed the televised series as much as I did. And without which I wouldn’t have enjoyed reading the Bowdlerised versions I got in class. So, my first thought is that anyone who is down on the NewSouth Huck should go out and get another version, or at least download one, right away before their kids get hold of the expurgated version, the one without the gannet.

Digression: I had never seen this version, with the brilliant Graham Chapman manning the counter. It’s amazing how much less funny it is to remove the eagle from Olsen’s Standard Book of American Birds. Also, it’s less funny when the customer is a woman, even if it’s Connie Booth. End Digression.

That joke, of course, is funny not because all expurgations are outrageous, but because it’s outrageous to take the gannet out of a birding book. They can’t print a special version of British Birds for gannet-haters. The question is whether it makes sense to print a special version of Huck Finn for people who don’t like that word. I think it does.

There’s a long history of Bowdlerisation. There are, believe it or not, books of Bible Stories that leave the Rape of Dinah entirely out. The editors of those books don’t necessarily want people to remain ignorant of Dinah throughout their lives. I want my children to have the full text available, and I want them to know that there is something that they are missing, but I don’t necessarily want to teach them about Dinah until I know they aren’t going to be fixated on it.

Everything is a trade-off, isn’t it? You balance what you get and what you lose. Mr. Gribben says that “a succession of firsthand experiences” led him to believe that the existence of an Bowdlerised (or Gribbenated) Huck Finn would lead to more people, rather than fewer, reading the original text. Teachers who haven’t been assigning the book may choose to assign it, if they know that the discussion of the book won’t be entirely derailed by discussion of the word nigger. Or Injun, for that matter. And he is the expert. Like most of the people who are commenting on the topic, I haven’t talked to anybody who has assigned, or who has refrained from assigning, the original text to a class. Mr. Gribben has, which doesn’t make him the final word, but does give him some sort of expertise that is worth respect.

I want to add to the James Michener story and the Thomas Bowdler quote a quote specifically about this book. It comes from the introduction, which every single person who reads the NewSouth Edition will have in their hands, and which explains the emendations. And in that introduction, Mr. Gribben points out that “literally dozens of other editions are available for those readers who prefer Twain’s original phrasing”. He even suggests people read the handwritten manuscript. Some people seem to believe that Mr. Gribben doesn’t want anyone to read the word nigger in Huck Finn; that seems to be entirely and completely false, and indeed a slander (or libel) on Mr. Gribben.

The question, it seems to me, is not so much whether the NewSouth edition is right, but whether it is necessary. I wouldn’t buy it for our house—I would get one of the dozens of other editions Mr. Gribben brings up. If my Perfect Non-Reader were assigned the book, I would make sure she had access to our original text. If the local teachers consulted me, I would advise against assigning the NewSouth edition, and possibly against assigning the book at all. But then, I’m not terribly fond of the book, and never was, even when I went through my Mark Twain phase. I think my daughter, and most other kids, would vastly prefer to read about a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, although a highly edited version of that might be even better…

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.