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The following review appeared 11 April 2011 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Early in his career, a young cocksure Sam Clemens lit out for the territories, literally and figuratively, but soon returned--wised up, seasoned, and sly--as Mark Twain. Armed to the teeth with a lethal arsenal of irony and satire, he married, and moved to the most exclusive neighborhood in one of the most civilized cities in America, and within a few years began the decade-long task of crafting a book that subverted the very culture he'd fled in his former life. He anchored his perspective in the sorrowful depths and simple joys of his own childhood, borrowed the dialects of social outcasts to give authentic voices to the characters he modeled after people he'd known, spun his narrative in a shimmering warp and weave of metaphors, animated it with a dazzling array of violent events and astonishing situations, and presented the result--a series of horrific adventures--disguised with just enough stereotypical behaviors and illustrations, and dosed with a thick enough coating of humor to make it acceptable to most readers. It was a kind of hoax on his readership, a literary method Twain knew quite well, and with the exception of a few prudish critics like Louisa May Alcott, he almost got away with it.
Of the 112,000 words in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 219 are the word "nigger." During Mark Twain's lifetime and for several decades after, this word did not cause a problem although the book was often banned for other reasons. Although crude language was sometimes cited as a reason for banning, the word "nigger" was never singled out. Today the word is often seized upon by students, teachers, school-boards, and parents as evidence of Twain's racist intent, a stance that requires the accuser to overlook Twain's sometimes heavy-handed ironic uses of the word. Certainly racism is exhibited by Huck, Tom, and others, including Jim himself, but not Twain. Twain's characters are not being ironic when they use the word, but Twain is being ironic when he has them say it. But for some readers, most of whom understand how Twain intended the word to advance his satire in an authentic way, the mere presence of the word is still hurtful.
The word "nigger" is more powerful now than in Twain's day, which has misled some to think Twain deliberately used it to provoke or shock his readers. For an excellent history of the evolution of this word, see Randall Kennedy's Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word (2003), a source mentioned by editor Alan Gribben, in his introduction to the NewSouth edition of Mark Twain's Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Twain himself used "nigger" casually in his personal correspondence more than twenty years after the publication of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He had used it in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1875), and in The Gilded Age a few years earlier. It would have been strange if Twain had left the word out of his writings altogether. Twain intended his words to increase the caliber and velocity of his satire as he kept American culture in his crosshairs. Yet even with this understanding, a problem remains--"nigger" has a power now far beyond anything contemplated by Mark Twain, and this increasingly prevents Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from being taught in schools, putting it in danger of becoming the kind of literary classic that Twain once described--a book that everyone knows but nobody reads.
As he describes in his introduction, Alan Gribben was repeatedly confronted with this painful situation during his travels when he participated in a state-wide reading project in Alabama (The Big Read). With the hope of finding a way to get Twain's masterpiece into the hands of students who would otherwise not be allowed to study it, Gribben changed the word "nigger" to "slave." He also changed "Injun Joe" to "Indian Joe" and "half-breed" to "half-blood." These may not be perfect substitutes, but it is a challenge to think of better ones. None of these substitutes have more power now than the word "nigger" did in Twain's own day, and that alone recommends them. Gribben is not the first scholar to equate "nigger" with "slave." David L. Smith's essay "Huck, Jim, and American Racial Discourse" collected in R. Kent Rasmussen's Mark Twain: Critical Insights (2010) proposes that these two words can be equated (p. 216), and it seems to be the accepted substitution by teachers who read the book aloud in class. Gribben acknowledges that textual purists will object to any "tampering" with Twain's text, and explains that this edition is not intended for scholars or mature readers who want to read the original text (p. 15), and he makes a point of guiding students to the major editions that retain the word (p. 16). He also agrees with those who defend Twain's use of the word and lists them by name, but he also quotes Langston Hughes's eloquent words on the pain the word inflicts when heard at all (p. 11). By the very act of making the substitution and then explaining it at length in his introduction, Gribben artfully draws more attention to the word "nigger" as a topic for class discussions or as a "teachable moment" than it would be otherwise. Gribben's NewSouth edition also omits all 174 of E. W. Kemble's original (and often stereotypical) illustrations.
The response to Gribben's edition in the mass media has run the gamut from frowns of disapproval to hysterical personal attacks. Almost all of these reactions preceded the actual publication of the book, with the result that few of these commentators likely had the opportunity to read Gribben's introduction. One critic (in a comment posted at publishersweekly.com) said that this edited edition will spawn "ignorant, naïve people with an inaccurate sense of ... history and literature" as if the alternative would be a better outcome--that the book be excluded from more and more curricula. Some critics were apparently unaware that Twain frequently altered and even suppressed his own texts to suit his readers, his wife, his friends, or his pocketbook. Without the benefit of reading Gribben's introduction, none of these commentaries have included more than a whisper about Gribben's decision to bundle The Adventures of Tom Sawyer with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in the NewSouth edition, his inclusion of the raftsmen episode, his substitutions for "Injun" and "half-breed," his deletion of the original illustrations, or his thoughtful commentary on the three things in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that attract the most critical attention (Jim's speech and docility, the evasion chapters, and Jim's relationship to Huck and Tom).
David Bradley, a college professor interviewed in a recent edition of "60 Minutes" on CBS said that in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn the "teachable moment is when that word hits the table" as if the book had nothing to teach unless the text being taught included the word "nigger." However, in his afterword, Gribben provides two pages of "satirical targets," all of them teachable moments (child abuse, alcoholism, slavery, religion, blood-feuds, Walter Scott, human gullibility, illiteracy, and social attitudes toward a host of topics).
In his introduction Gribben explains that he has paired The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in one volume because Twain himself viewed them as paired in this way. He explains how the books were originally advertised and sold, and how they are so closely related in time, place, plot, structure, themes, and characters. To fully understand Huck, a reader must first experience the horrors of his existence as depicted in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, a thesis that is convincingly presented by Cynthia Griffin Wolff in "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, a Nightmare Vision of American Boyhood" (reprinted in Rasmussen, ed., Mark Twain: Critical Insights, 2010).
Next, Gribben recounts his candid conversations with educators and parents and others, and how this led him to seek a way to get Huck and Jim into classrooms where they were no longer welcome. He fully explains how he decided to make the three word substitutions already mentioned. Although this book is not for scholars or textual purists, those who teach the book may wish to begin with this particular section of the introduction.
When Gribben confronts the three most common critical objections to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, scholars will want to take note. He suggests several examples of "dungeon literature" that Twain was burlesquing in the infamous "evasion chapters." The victims of Twain's burlesque, more familiar to his nineteenth century readership than to today's readers, include Alexandre Dumas, William H. Ainsworth, Thomas Carlyle, Joseph X. B. Saintine, Casanova, Baron Friedrich von der Trenck, and Benvenuto Cellini, which may help explain why many of today's scholars find the evasion chapters a puzzle if these authors are not part of their reading repertoire.
Gribben concludes with a warning that interpreting Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a simple narrative of a boy coming to recognize the humanity of a slave, while correct as far as it goes, is an incomplete reading that overlooks the truly subversive nature of Huck's story. Prodded by events that take place in the evasion chapters, Huck discovers that "it is conformist and cowardly of us to take for granted that prevailing laws and customs, no matter how solidly established, are too sacred to be skeptically examined and intellectually tested by each of us as individuals" (pp. 27-8). Students who read Huckleberry Finn must ask themselves if they too are yielding to social pressures to conform, or engaging in poor behavior simply because it is in vogue.
Steve Railton takes a different approach to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in the Broadview Press edition. His text follows that of the first edition of 1885, with twenty typographical errors silently corrected. He includes an excerpt from the raftsmen episode in his appendix, and includes all of Kemble's original illustrations. In Appendix C he also includes the four illustrations Kemble added to the 1899 edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. His edition does not include The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but includes a brief excerpt from it. His introduction covers much of the same ground as Gribben's--freedom and slavery, the targets of Twain's satire, Twain's sources, and Twain's use of the word "nigger." Railton points out that two kinds of freedom are being sought in this story; while Huck is busy freeing Jim from slavery, Jim frees Huck of his "mental slavery of society" (p. 18). He discusses at length the relationship between Huck and Jim, how Jim's humanity is displayed, and how the focus of Twain's satire is not slavery, but racism. Railton also explains how Twain's stereotypical treatment of Jim sometimes gets in the way of the satire (p. 27). He discusses two common explanations for the evasion chapters (pp. 28-9), the first being the notion that they are a satirical commentary on the convict-lease programs of the 1880s, and the second being the popular [Uncle] "Tom shows" of that day. There is scant evidence to support the former theory, and only slight evidence to support the latter. Railton's best observation is saved for last--that people who defend Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and those who protest it, are seldom willing to listen and learn from each other (p. 38), with the result that the question of racism in the book is too often presented as a Yes-or-No question, which leads people to argue over Twain's masterpiece instead of looking into it together. Like Gribben, he is passionate in his conviction that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn belongs in the classroom. His list of sources (pp. 445-8) is similar to Gribben's with both printed and digital sources cited, and both provide a student with ample explorative reading.
What distinguishes Railton's edition are the carefully chosen extracts from a wide variety of background materials that he has appended to his text. Each extract is introduced by an informative note and well-chosen illustrations, which will inspire students to seek out these original sources, which include related texts by Twain, among them "A True Story," extracts from Life on the Mississippi, Tom Sawyer Abroad, and Autobiography. Railton's edition also includes texts that reflect contemporary attitudes toward slavery and race, including a newspaper editorial from The Chicago Tribune that claimed that since the right to vote had been granted to former slaves (in 1870), they "have nothing more to ask" (p. 386); a racist Brudder Bones minstrel sketch; some examples of minstrel sheet music; an example of a "Tom show"; and extracts from Thomas Nelson Page (Mars Chan) and George W. Cable (The Freedman's Case of Inequity). Next follows sections about Kemble's illustrations and an informative section on the marketing of the first edition in 1885. Nine contemporary reviews of the book, five contemporary articles (including Twain's response) on the banning of his book by the Concord Free Library, and seven reviews of Twain's stage performances from Huckleberry Finn during the Twain-Cable tour of 1884-5 are also included. The final section contains six extracts from Twain's other writings that reflect his views on "freedom versus fate"--the dilemma Twain explored in What is Man?
It is unfortunate that Gribben's edition has been bashed in
the media as if the only thing he did was thoughtlessly tinker with Twain's
text, and it is equally regrettable that Railton's edition (with that vile
word intact, as well as Kemble's sometimes offensive illustrations) has attracted
little notice. Stephen Railton ended his introduction with the observation
that the journey that began when Huck and Jim departed from Jackson's Island
is not yet over. Both Gribben's and Railton's editions are thoughtfully designed
for their intended purposes and have much to commend them to students. Perhaps
these students will be reading different editions in different classrooms,
but they are journeying down the same river to the same destination. Let nothing
delay their arrival.