Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Taking the niggers out of Huck Finn

At the beginning of this year, there was an internet brouhaha over the politically correct decision to replace all instances of the word “nigger” with "slave" in a forthcoming edition of the American classic novel, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”. I have been vehemently opposed to political correctness ever since I was told at college orientation that exercising my first amendment rights was grounds for dismissal from university. So when I read about this controversy, I chose to react in the most politically incorrect manner possible: I decided to take the time to re-read the book instead of spouting off instantly and emotionally. Six months later, the internet has long since forgotten about this event, and I’m finally ready to comment.

Being politically incorrect, my first reaction was that, if they were going to start substituting words, they ought to be adding slurs, not removing them. For example, the text of Huck Finn contains 51 instances of “white”. What if we were to replace all these with “trailer trash”?

The answer, of course, is that the story starts to make less sense. For example, consider the introduction of Huck’s father:

There warn't no color in his face, where his face showed; it was trailer trash; not like another man's trailer trash, but a trailer trash to make a body sick, a trailer trash to make a body's flesh crawl -- a tree-toad trailer trash, a fish-belly trailer trash.

Since more than three quarters of the instances of “white” in the story do not refer to race, it requires a bit of picking and choosing to get this substitution to work:

And here comes the trailer trash woman running from the house, about forty-five or fifty year old, bareheaded, and her spinning-stick in her hand; and behind her comes her little trailer trash children, acting the same way the little niggers was going.

Of course, trailers are an anachronism, and as far as epithets go, “trailer trash” is about as mild as they get: the only people likely to be offended by it probably haven’t discovered the internet yet. And it isn't even politically incorrect, since the only people it is politically correct to slur are the uneducated rural whites. So let’s try something else.

One obvious use of politically uncorrect substitution is to determine whether words are being used derogatorily. For example, if "lady" is used in a class warfare, resentful, or sarcastic context, then substituting a politically incorrect derogatory synonym (of which there are many) should preserve the tone of the passage. Performing the substitution allows us to test this hypothesis, which the very first of the 12 substitutions finds wanting:

Three big men with guns pointed at me, which made me wince, I tell you; the oldest, gray and about sixty, the other two thirty or more -- all of them fine and handsome -- and the sweetest old gray-headed cunt, and back of her two young women which I couldn't see right well.

Rachel Grangerford (the grey-haired lady/cunt) is depicted as a sympathetic, motherly character. Even in outback Australian trucking circles, where every fourth word is cunt, the above passage would be incongruous. She is the subject of five of the first seven instances of ‘lady’, and the other two refer wistfully to drawings made by Emmeline Grangerford, another sympathetic character. Most of the rest of the uses of ‘lady’ refer to fine-looking circus performers, who are not viewed particularly badly.

In fact, there are relatively few horrible female characters in Huck Finn. The least sympathetic would probably be Miss Watson, the evangelizing sister of Huck’s legal guardian who tries to sell Jim downriver. The following passage retains most of its original meaning, for example:

I noticed dey wuz a nigger trader roun' de place considable lately, en I begin to git oneasy. Well, one night I creeps to de do' pooty late, en de do' warn't quite shet, en I hear de old cunt tell de widder she gwyne to sell me down to Orleans, but she didn' want to, but she could git eight hund'd dollars for me, en it 'uz sich a big stack o' money she couldn' resis'. De widder she try to git her to say she wouldn' do it, but I never waited to hear de res'. I lit out mighty quick, I tell you.

Of course, one has to be careful doing an automatic search and replace of all 110 instances of “miss”. Firstly, cunt is not a verb, and secondly, the story is set on the Missouri bank of the Mississippi river.

But I digress. The uproar about this book is not the cunts. It is the niggers. And if the politically correct way of addressing this is to turn all instances of nigger to slave, then the politically anticorrect response should be to change all the original uses of the word slave to nigger. And this is where things get interesting.

Despite the word nigger appearing in the text 212 times, slave only appears 11. Five of those are in “slavery”, and another refers to “slave country”. The remaining five are related to Jim’s sale to the Phelps family by the King, Huck stealing him, and the news that Miss Watson freed Jim in her will on account of feeling bad about trying to sell him.

The word slave is only used to specifically refer to the condition of someone (usually Jim) being owned. It is not used to refer to people as human beings. In the original text, it is simply not interchangeable with nigger, or black, or any other reference to people, African-American or otherwise.

Slavery is an institution that quite literally reduces people to mere property- it is the ultimate form of objectification. So the original texts refusal to label the people subjected to this institution with the word slave is probably important, given that the author had hundreds of chances to do so. In this way, the text condemns the institution in a way that would be lost in the politically correct rewording.

Of course, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" is not the only form of literature to have been deniggered. For example, the well known nursery school rhyme:
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe,
Catch a nigger by the toe.
If it hollers let him go,
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe

Has been edited to replace nigger with tiger. To the best of my knowledge, this did not precipitate howls of outrage among the self-appointed internet literati. However, such a substitution might be a bit awkward for Huck Finn:
Tigers would come miles to hear Jim tell about it, and he was more looked up to than any tiger in that country. Strange tigers would stand with their mouths open and look him all over, same as if he was a wonder. Tigers is always talking about witches in the dark by the kitchen fire; but whenever one was talking and letting on to know all about such things, Jim would happen in and say, "Hm! What you know 'bout witches?" and that tiger was corked up and had to take a back seat. Jim always kept that five-center piece round his neck with a string, and said it was a charm the devil give to him with his own hands, and told him he could cure anybody with it and fetch witches whenever he wanted to just by saying something to it; but he never told what it was he said to it. Tigers would come from all around there and give Jim anything they had, just for a sight of that five-center piece; but they wouldn't touch it, because the devil had had his hands on it.

It may be that politically correct readers wish to substitute something other than slave or tiger throughout this novel; feel free to leave suggestions, with examples of replaced text, in comments.

A more general point is that experimental search and replace is an interesting tool of textural analysis. Obviously it can only be used in the case of works available in an editable format, which for practical purposes means the public domain. But it shows that the traditional scientific methods of exploring a system by changing one variable at a time can be applied to literature. There has be much in the news of late about the controversial practice of statistically mining literature. So experimentation is the next obvious step in the sciencification of literary analysis.

Systematically changing the language of various masterpieces is a useful analytical tool. But I suspect that anti-science traditionalists will see this technique as blasphemous vandalism which is even more offensive than the derogatory words used freely in this post.


Isotopic said...


I think you might be slightly off the mark with your implicit characterisation of the intent behind the "clean" edition of HF. It is intended to be an alternate (not authoritative, or ever preferred) edition that could access a wider readership than the book currently possesses: Due to the presence of the offending word, some schools (for example) will not use the book for classes. See http://is.gd/bqqbwt

To wit, the intent of the edition was not a stab at what you call "political correctness", but a well-meaning attempt to bring a work of literature to a wider audience. If there is an original sin here, it is the avoidance of the book by educators, but that problem is probably too nuanced and and variegated for a blog post, unfortunately.

Chris Phoenix said...

I remember my high school English class reading aloud The Diary of Anne Frank. We got to the part about the Christmas present of "shampoo" made by smushing up soap in "the last of the toilet water."

There was some involuntary gagging. I was probably the only person in the class, including the teacher, who knew that "toilet water" was an obsolete (in America) term for perfume.

I wouldn't want to try to teach Huck Finn, as written, to any high school class. I'd like to see them make a special "school edition" replacing the N-word with something like "darky" or "spade" - both historically derogatory words for African-Americans, but without the emotional freight that the N-word has taken on in the last few decades.

In fact, textbook publishers could make a lot of money selling a school edition Huck Finn for $15 a book, while leaving the original unmodified.

Mike Licht said...

Q: Is the narrator of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn an omniscient Samuel Clemens, author, world traveler and crusader against genocide in the Congo?

A: No. The narrator is impoverished, uneducated Huck Finn, son of the town drunk. Of course he speaks that way.

Andrew Joyce said...

The last time you heard of me and Tom was in that book Sam Clemens wrote telling of when Jim and me flowed down the Mississippi and met up with the King and the Duke. Then Jim got captured and Tom and I had to set him free. Of course, Jim was already a freed man; Tom just neglected to mention that fact during the planning stage.

Well, we were twelve years of age when Sam wrote about that. Now Tom and I are a mite older and a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then. One thing is that we’re a little bit smarter than we were. We’ve been reading a lot of books and our English has improved a little. But it wasn’t just books. Both Tom and I have traveled many miles, not always together, and travel broadens one’s outlook on life.

We went from being children to men before we knew it. Tom and Becky Thatcher never got married like everyone expected. In the summer of '54, Becky ran off with a drummer. I think he sold women’s corsets, but of that, I am not certain. We haven’t heard from her since. Judge Thatcher and Tom’s Aunt Polly both took sick and died the next year when the Cholera epidemic passed through town. Two years after that, the widow Douglas died; the doctor said it was heart failure.