Many critics are up in arms about a certain Twain scholar’s recent decision to produce a bowdlerized edition of Huckleberry Finn. Most have invoked a quotation from Twain himself on the difference between the right word and the wrong one.
Overwhelmingly, people are protesting the violation of the definitive text. But the notion of a definitive text is a fallacy–a text can no more be fixed than can its author. Conveniently, Twain is long dead, so we can imagine his values to be an unchanging continuum from the moment he first committed Huck to the page until now, when he is reportedly spinning in his grave. But in truth, a text undergoes any number of changes, hesitations, reinterpretations, omissions and the like over the course of its lifetime. In The Fluid Text, a study of the slippery nature of the book, examining primarily the works of Melville, John Bryant says it best: “The very nature of writing, the creative process, and shifting intentionality, as well as the powerful social forces that occasion translation, adaptation, and censorship among readers–in short, the facts of revision, publication, and reception–urge us to recognize that the only ‘definitive text’ is a multiplicity of texts, or rather, the fluid text” (2). Bryan cites the example of Melville’s growing political sensitivity and the many instances in his first novel, Typee, where he replaced savage and native with islander. These edits, of course, took place relatively early on in the book’s development, but even from the moment of its publication at least two versions of Typee have existed (the British and the American, and later clarified or reinterpreted editions of each) and so the text exists as all of its variations simultaneously. This is true also of Huckleberry Finn: one expurgated edition will not erase the existing text nor will it replace it. It simply contributes to the vector of the fluid text.
So to me, it’s clear that inviolable nature of the definitive Mark Twain is not what makes Alan Gribben’s actions unconscionable. Rather, we can look to the professor’s own reasoning to show us why his actions are inappropriate. He explains that in his years of teaching the text, he has always replaced the word in question with one that is laden with much of the same white-supremacist history but belongs to a past era–”slave” does not reflect the still-present racism we are reacting to with such discomfort in the word he has replaced. “I invariably substituted the word ’slave’ for Twain’s ubiquitous n-word whenever I read any passages aloud. Students and audience members seemed to prefer this expedient, and I could detect a visible sense of relief each time, as though a nagging problem with the text had been addressed,” Gribben says (via MobyLives). What nagging problem? That the text forces many of us to confront our own privilege.
I admit, I myself am squeamish about the “n-word.” I have never said it aloud nor have I used it in print, and I won’t use it here. I was born with a great deal of privilege that is bound up with centuries of oppression and violence and ongoing institutionalized and culturally pervasive racism, and this makes me supremely uncomfortable. Avoiding this discomfort with euphemisms and revisionism is self-serving and irresponsible.
But I don’t think that Twain is, to borrow a phrase from The L Word, much interested in making people feel fucking comfortable. Art and criticism exist to challenge the status quo. And it’s made clear by the fact that this word still carries so much power to disrupt, hurt, oppress, and accuse that the state of things in 2011 is not sufficiently different from the state of things in 1884 for us to forget the lessons Twain is trying to teach us about ourselves.