Dear Jane…

January 23, 2011

Jane Sullivan is a professional novelist whose weekly column, ‘Turning Pages,’ is a fixture of the weekend literary supplements in Australia’s Fairfax broadsheets, most notably The Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne’s The Age. What usually makes ‘Turning Pages’ stand out from the more news-oriented literary coverage that surrounds it is the spirit of contemplation in which it is written. Sullivan rarely takes as her subject the new releases of the week just gone and rarely exhorts her readers to immediately make a beeline for whichever book has recently won her over. Instead, she uses ‘Turning Pages’ as a space in which to think out loud about literary issues of a less transient nature, to meditate on the difficulties and the triumphs of literary creativity in a voice of exacting calm and serenity.

This week, however, Sullivan’s column is one of the more incredible things I have ever encountered in a literary supplement — incredible in the sense that I find it literally beyond credibility. Equal parts infantile and insidious, it is impossible for me to believe that anyone who even aspires to being a novelist could have ever written it in the hope or the expectation that it would be taken seriously. Earlier this month, Alan Gribben, “a well-meaning professor of English at an Alabama university,” announced his intention to publish a version of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in which the word “nigger” is replaced throughout with the word “slave.” Since then, Sullivan writes in this week’s ‘Turning Pages,’ “[t]he media and blogosphere have erupted with comments, almost all negative. How dare anyone, even an eminent Twain scholar such as Professor Alan Gribben, monkey about with Huck Finn?”

Lest we infer that Sullivan herself supports Gribben’s misguided project, she insists that she “can’t help but agree with [his] critics: I hate the very idea of tampering with a classic, and I believe that Twain chose his language with enormous care…  to show the way, in all its stark truth, that ordinary uneducated [Southerners] spoke and thought about the slave population.” Even so, she concludes, “having read Gribben’s introduction to his new edition, I find I have a sneaking sympathy for his views. … I never thought I’d write this. But maybe, just maybe, in certain classrooms, for a limited period, a censored Huck is better than no Huck at all.”

Put in plain language: ‘I’m not saying we should censor Huckleberry Finn; I’m just saying that maybe it deserves to be censored.’ Worse than Sullivan’s doublespeak, though, is the sheer naivety of her proposals and the arrogance of the assumptions on which they are founded. Exactly who would decide which classrooms study the original text and which ones study the “censored” edition, and exactly what sort of limits would be placed on the “limited period” of their studies in censorship? And, more importantly, how in the world has it come to be understood that literature, of all things, is somehow invested with a moral obligation to avoid upsetting the pseudo-humanist sensibilities of contemporary liberal society or even to deliberately flatter them? How has it been decided that a work of literature which shirks this obligation should remain unread if it remains uncensored?

In what reads to me like an attempt to forestall the objection that she does not give due consideration to the criticisms made of Gribben over the last couple of weeks, Sullivan offers a little airtime to some of them. “We [have] heard,” she writes, “that trying to erase the N-word from American culture [i]s ‘profoundly, profoundly wrong.’ We were told that the book was ‘about a boy growing up a racist in a racist society who learns to reject that racism, and it makes no sense if the book isn’t racist.'” The first of those two criticisms is, I think, the most potent and so the most deserving of a level of deep thought that Sullivan does not offer it, largely because of the political circumstances with which news of Gribben’s project coincided. On the first sitting day of the 112th Congress, members of the United States House of Representatives took turns reading aloud the U.S. Constitution. But while the reading included the Amendment 13 which constitutionally enshrined the nationwide abolition of slavery, it did not include the full text of Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution which formally recognised the practice of slaveholding and thus constitutionally enshrined slavery in the first place.

In effect, then, the Congress airbrushed the legislative institutionalisation of slavery out of the broader picture of American history, construing it as some sort of vestigial practice inherited from the colonial era rather than as a practice knowingly and purposefully written into the Republic’s “Supreme Law of the Land.” That sort of brazen and officially sanctified historical revisionism would be distressing at the best of times, but it is even more so for having emerged hand-in-hand with Alan Gribben’s revisions of Huckleberry Finn — and vice-versa for Huckleberry Finn itself. Slavery was the formal and legislative manifestation of the dehumanisation of African-Americans. The “niggering” of African-Americans is the social and cultural manifestation of that same dehumanisation. The designation of a person as “slave” and the designation of a person as “nigger” are, respectively, the political and the personal outgrowths of the same practice of dehumanisation. It would be “profoundly, profoundly wrong” to erase “nigger” from a literary cornerstone of American culture even if for no other reason than that the present U.S. Congress has shown no hesitation in whitewashing the political equivalent of “niggering” from the document that legitimates the entire American Government. But of course, there is one other important reason why the replacement of “nigger” with “slave” is terrifically misguided, as Francine Prose has indicated:

[W]hat puzzles me most about the debate [over Gribben’s revisions] is why the word “nigger” should be more freighted, more troubling, the cause of more (to paraphrase [Gribben’s] introduction) “resentment” than the word “slave.” Racial epithets are inarguably disgusting, but not nearly so disgusting as an institution that treats human beings as property to be beaten, bought and sold. “Nigger” and “slave” are not synonyms by any stretch of the imagination.

Absolutely not. Although both are vile and both originate from the same practice of dehumanisation, the designation of a person as “slave” carried political and even militaristic implications and consequences that the designation of a person as “nigger” never has. Yet the preponderance of the view that “nigger” is the more troubling word indicates to me that the unconscionable significance of the word “slave” has been diluted to an extent that the word is now widely seen as innocuous in a way that slavery itself is not; and the replacement of “nigger” with “slave” seems to me to threaten a further dilution of the significance of the word that should be the more severe of the two. What is particularly troubling is that Jane Sullivan clearly has some sense of this. “[W]e were reminded,” she writes as she recounts the criticisms of Gribben, “[that] Twain was particular about his language: a champion of the vernacular in all its forms, he hated being edited, let alone censored.” Part of his being “particular about his language” involved occasionally using the word “slave” as distinct from “nigger,” so that to replace “nigger” with “slave” is to muddy the meaning of both words at the same time.

There is more at stake in the debate sparked by Gribben’s project than what Sullivan admits when she looks upon it — myopically — as a disagreement over whether anyone should be “tampering with [the] classic[s]” and “monkey[ing] about with Huck Finn.” What is at stake is the meaning of words that bear the weight of cultural memory. The narrower the definition of those words, the clearer their meaning and the stronger the memories they bear; and, inversely, those memories dissolve as the words that bear them are exchanged for others whose meaning is similar although not exactly the same. The racism against African-Americans that is conveyed via the word “nigger” is undeniably horrible; but much more horrible — indeed, horrific — is the full-scale political dehumanisation of African-Americans that can be best conveyed only through the word “slave.” Conflating the two might make certain passages of Huckleberry Finn more palatable for some contemporary readers put off by Mark Twain’s use of mid-nineteenth century Southern dialect, but it belittles and thus trivialises the quotidian oppression of the millions of Africans and African-Americans who woke each day and collapsed into sleep each night and lived every hour of their lives under the torment of total, inescapable enslavement. More than his “hat[red of] being edited” and of “proofreaders and typesetters chang[ing] his punctuation,” the trivialisation of slavery occasioned by Gribben’s revisions of Huckleberry Finn would have the novel’s “raging author spinning in his grave” — to say nothing of the slaves who suffered through a situation of unfathomable physical and psychological agony that Gribben and his supporters apparently believe is equatable to copping an earful of racist slang.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.