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The recent furor surrounding a new edition of Mark Twain’s nineteen-century classic, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, has far-reaching implications beyond the crude oppositions of censorship and narrative purity that has thus far shaped this episodic, but far-reaching, debate. Read and analyzed along the axis of our nation’s long history of racial dispossession and persistent racial evasion about one of our founding domestic dramas, the tensions engendered by this anticipated publication (to be released next month by NewSouth Books) reveal a great deal concerning the depths of our confusion about race in post-Civil Rights America.
At issue is the substitution of the more than two hundred invocations of that familiar term, “nigger,” in the novel, with the apparently more palatable appellation, “slave.” The new edition will also remove “injun” from the narrative in favor of the equally ahistorical moniker, “Indian.” That many scholars have long replaced the supposed proper noun “slave” with “enslaved” as a way to mark the brutal, meaning-making operations of power that characterized the “peculiar institution,” was clearly lost on the editor of this edition. While Alan Gribben, the professor who floated the idea to the publisher, insists that the new edition is geared toward young readers and not intended for scholars, the excision of this historically-sedimented, still to be sorted, and exceedingly complex word from the novel, not only does our next generation of young minds a remarkable disservice, but betrays a disturbing trend of presentism abroad in the nation.
Despite announcements of Adventures supposed decline in the lessons plans and syllabi of our nation’s schools, Twain has enjoyed a virtually unassailable place in the pantheons of American literature; and the novel, along with other expressions of its kind from the period, (Stowe and Fennimore Cooper spring immediately to mind), are still widely read at various levels of instruction. The special place that these writers inhabit in our national imagination has everything to do with the depictions of social life offered up by these novelists who delimited and re-enforced conceptions not only about racial difference, but of “race” itself. If we understand that race is not divined, but the product of the deliberate work of “men,” then the issues that these novels raise—both then and now—might actually represent an opportunity. But what do we know about the novel, really? As I have written elsewhere, the persistent ambiguity surrounding the novel can be reconciled if we come to terms with two interdependent concepts that grow out of the work: that an incisive, if intensely qualified, critique of the racial and class structure of nineteenth-century American life shapes the author’s offering; and that in many ways, these revolutionary remarks, voiced as they are through the figure of Huck Finn, are dependent upon, and in fact facilitated by, the captive, othered, and child-like presence of the young boy’s raft companion, Jim. Twain’s pairing of an enslaved adult male with a fourteen-year-old white boy simply fleeing the restraints of a derelict father and an intrusive community, has always struck me as having very little to do with slavery itself. Similar to the exhausting catalogue of ‘buddy’ films, novels, and plays, of cross-racial fraternity that it spawned, the novel is unconcerned with societal transformation, but is instead preoccupied by the true subjects of the novel: the white, male protagonists to whom these “others” are variously serviceable. Twain’s place in our literary canon might be more rightly ascribed not to his vast writerly talents, or his laudable ambition to explicitly engage the nightmare of race in nineteenth-century America; instead, his enduring status has much to do with the fact that he invented a seductively dishonest narrative convention which purports to explore race, but is mainly concerned with national innocence and redemption about our “troubled” history.
Ultimately, this is an issue not to be debated in isolation through the frustratingly limiting circuits of our morally-bankrupt corporate media as it has over the last couple of days. Indeed, what would it mean for this recent discord to give way to real exchanges about conquest, settlement, slavery, and its aftermath? This might be a naïve question given what has passed for “teachable moments” about race in recent history, but the inquiry is valid and pressing-especially given the audience for the edition. As teachers, publishers, and intellectuals, we have an enormous responsibility to our young to share the truth about our dense history and to assist them in thinking critically about their complex location within our national body. For how long can we replace honest and necessarily difficult conversations about the legacies of our young country with the poor and mutually impoverishing gestures of apologies, monuments, postage stamps, casinos, individual ascendancy, and the myriad other cosmetic treatments which pass for progress when the descendants of the enslaved and the deterritorialized are still languishing in our nation’s reservations and ghettos? And what to do about our confusing racial landscape when “nigger” is the lingua franca of the most lucrative expressive form in the country and falls from the lips of our young (of all stripes) with alarming ease and no real sense of its origin? To paraphrase Jamaica Kincaid, there’s a world of something in this, and tentative usage of the “n” word, or its erasure or substitution, does not begin to address the consequences of slavery, which, at bottom, is all of our inheritance.
Rich Blint, writer and cultural critic, is busy completing his dissertation, “Trembling on the Edge of Confession: Racial Figuration and Iconicity in Modern American Culture,” in the Program in American Studies at New York University. His areas of interest include, American capitalism, media studies, and US popular culture; American and African American literature and culture; postcolonialism and diaspora; and urban form and politics in the context of the global. Blint is guest editor of the Winter/Spring 2008 issue of Black Renaissance Noir and co-editor (with Douglas Field) of a special issue of African American Review on James Baldwin forthcoming in 2012. He serves on the Executive Board of Vanderbilt University’s, ‘Issues in Critical Investigation: The African Diaspora,’ and has taught courses at NYU, The Brecht Forum, and Hunter College, The City University of New York. He lives in New York City.