Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Editing Mark Twain

By now I'm sure most of you have read and discussed the decision to publish Mark Twain's classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, replacing the "N" word with "slave." I waited a few days to post on this topic because if there's one thing I've learned over the years, it's to not go public with a statement while emotions are running hot. Were my emotions running hot the day the news about the new version broke?

You betcha.

I'm an author. Words are my medium, and I don't take kindly to the notion of mucking about with anyone's words, even that the person who wrote 'em has been dead for a while. Even if the words make me uncomfortable or offend me. I may not like what you say but, like Voltaire, I defend your right to say it.

According to my grandmother, I'm also a distant cousin of Samuel Clemens. I suspect it's true because she was heavily into genealogy and she wouldn't have made something like that up. So even though I haven't personally seen the genealogy chart that links my family line to old Cousin Sam's, my blood was boiling out of sheer family loyalty.

But now that I've had some time to think about it, I've changed my mind. Now I say, by all means, make the change!

If there's one thing this country doesn't need, it's an old, tired book reminding us how horribly African Americans were treated in this country just a few generations ago. Nobody wants to think about slavery, but if we must, at least let's take some of the sting out of the subject.

All that ugliness has caused a lot of bad feelings over the years. And all those bad feelings have caused a lot of trouble. So, forgetting entirely about the sensibilities of the world's sixth graders, I say that the very last thing we need hanging around is a reminder that race relations weren't always perfect, the way they are now.

The very best thing we can do is to shave off the sharp edges and produce a much gentler history for posterity. To hell with the truth! (Sorry Cousin Sam.) Let's make sure the past looks pretty so future generations will look upon us more kindly.

On second thought, maybe Cousin Sam would approve of this change. After all, he did once say:

"Truth is the most valuable thing we have. Let us economize it." -- Mark Twain

We can economize truth right now with the removal of one horrendously offensive word. We can soften the blow so that that this generation will grow up not knowing how bad things really were. By the time these kids grow up, they'll be ready to remove "slave" and substitute it with "servant." Or maybe "friend." Why stop short?

In two or three more generations, we'll have softened the truth so much, our posterity will be able to recycle the stuff we've removed from history and start all over again. And the best part of that is, they'll think they made it up!


While we're discussing the subject, let's forget that Twain wrote political and cultural satire that wasn't intended for sixth graders in the first place. So let's dumb down the books a bit further and remove all the other poky-out parts that might jab somebody else in the conscience. No sense letting the old man get a dig in now that he's not around.

And maybe when we're finished with Twain, we can take a swipe at Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. I'm pretty sure there are some things we'll want to soften in the history of the holocaust, as well.

"It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. 
It's what you know for sure that just ain't so." 
-- Mark Twain

"Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please." 
-- Mark Twain 

"The difference between the right word and the almost right word 
is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug." 
-- Mark Twain

"All right, then, I'll go to hell." 
-- Mark Twain

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from the blog On My Mind Today

2 comments:

Adam said...

Nice job - this was pretty hilarious (you almost had me fooled).

This part, in particular:

In two or three more generations, we'll have softened the truth so much, our posterity will be able to recycle the stuff we've removed from history and start all over again. And the best part of that is, they'll think they made it up!

And, of course, they'll make all the same mistakes, because there was nothing left to show them why they were doing wrong.

Great, great!

Sherry Lewis said...

Thanks Adam! Glad you got it :) I wasn't certain anyone would.