Hay and the Making Thereof

When angry, count to four. When very angry, swear. (from "Puddn'head Wilson")

It has recently come to this bookseller’s –and everybody else’s — attention that there is a new version of Huck Finn soon to be available. For those of you who don’t want to read the Publisher\’s Weekly article, here’s the skinny:

Huck always makes the Most Banned list. So, has it been withheld from literally hundreds of school curricula, not to mention libraries’ circulation, for its revolutionary ideas about race and class in America or it’s skewering of popularly accepted mores? Nope. It’s usually banned because of the use of one word:  nigger.

This is very sad. Far from being a racist book, Huckleberry Finn pillories the unjust society in which it was written. An attentive and carefully educated reader will pick this right up. Maybe.

Twain chose his words with purpose, and there’s something about changing the rhythm of a great writer’s prose that makes a bookseller itch. But there is that “n” word. .. What makes it such an important issue? If the word has never been applied to you personally, let me suggest that it might go something like this:

At one time in my life, I fell into the company of a group of sales and marketing professionals, all of them men, who liked to use the word, “rape” to mean “take advantage of.” As in, “Talk about sticker shock – I really got raped on that new hummer.”  Or, “Oh my God, Bob, you totally raped that supplier – way to go!”

 As a woman, the word rape just flat stopped me listening. 

Three good friends of mine have been raped. One was nearly killed. The great majority of us have had near misses. Before I turned 14 I learned how to check shop-front reflections to see if a creepy guy was still following me, and to be sure and look like I knew where I was going. A few years later, we all learned to hold house keys with the pointy bits sticking out of our fists.

The point is that these guys were using a word that could never affect them the way it did me. They didn’t give it a second thought. And while they went on to discuss moon roofs or motherboards, I was busy thinking “Did he really say that? Why would somebody say something like that? I can’t believe he said that.” I was angry and hurt and, yeah, kind of shocked. And then all of a sudden, I was realizing, “Wait, what? We’re talking about quarterly bonuses now? Oh hell, now I missed something important.”

Because of our relative employment positions, and because of these fellows’ imperturbable dickliness, calling them on their inappropriate word usage would have been lousy for my income – and pointless too.

I’m a straight white girl with very little in the way of ethnic or religious peculiarity. It’s tough to offend me personally, much less throw me right off the track of a discussion. But what if “nigger” was my hot-button — if that was the word that I find threatening and hurtful and clearly chosen to intimidate? A huge chunk of great American literature would be a very different kettle of fish.

Maybe substituting the word “slave” for the word “nigger” in Huck Finn is not so bad. Nobody is suggesting that the new edition replace the original text. The New South version acts simply as an alternative or supplement. In Twain’s day, a word which causes readers to cringe now was in common use – not even recognized as a slur.

The Mark Twain I think I know, though he did have a certain fondness for giving offense, never wished to give it undeserved. Nor would he care to prevent the enjoyment of his work with a single word.

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2 Comments

Filed under about books

2 responses to “Hay and the Making Thereof

  1. Well said, Mary. I never looked at it that way, so thank you for the insight!

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