Saturday, January 08, 2011

Dr. Thomas Bowdler (With A Dumbo Posse) Rides Again!

It is no small irony that an attempt to "de-niggarize" The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has appeared in Montgomery, AL. After all, it was in Alabama (albeit Birmingham) that T. Eugene (Bull) Connor — Birminham's Commissioner of Public Safety — ordered the use of attack dogs on civil rights demonstrators on May 3, 1963. When asked about the use of attack dogs, Connor replied: "Look at those niggers run!" However, the PC-nonsense is not limited to "the Cradle of the Confederacy." Look to Washington, DC where the Dumbos in the House of Representatives read the U. S. Constitution to open the 112th Congress and omitted reading the portion of the Constitution that reflected the counting of 5 slaves as the equivalent of 3 white persons (Article 1 Section 2 Clause 3) for the purposes of the Decennial Census; population was the basis of representation in the House of Representatives. Further, the Dumbos omitted the portion of the Constitution (Article 4 Section 2 Clause 2) that imperiled runaway slaves. Small wonder that Dumbos are called "Dumbos" in this blog. If this is (fair & balanced) historical dishonesty, so be it.

[Vannevar Bush Hyperlink — Bracketed NumbersDirectory]
[1] "The Most Offensive Word That's Knowed" — John Sherffius
[2] "Light Out, Huck, They Still Want To Sivilize You" — Michiko Kakutani
[3] “The First Drafts Of American History” — Adam Kirsch

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"The Most Offensive Word That's Knowed"
By John Sherffius

Click on image to enlarge. Ω

[John Sherffius began drawing editorial cartoons for the Daily Bruin, the campus newspaper at UCLA. After two years of working as a freelance artist, after graduation, he was hired by the Ventura County Star in Southern California as a graphic artist and gradually worked his way into editorial cartooning for the paper. In 1998, he was hired by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as the newspaper's editorial cartoonist, a job he held until 2003 when he quit the paper over editorial differences. Sherffius bridled at editorial insistence that he tone down cartoons attacking Republicans. Sherffius then went to work for the Boulder Daily Camera where his cartoons appear regularly and are syndicated nationally by the Copley News Service. Sherffius won the 2008 Herblock Prize for Editorial Cartooning.]

Copyright © 2011 John Sherffius/Boulder Daily Camera
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Light Out, Huck, They Still Want To Sivilize You
By Michiko Kakutani

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“All modern American literature,” Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.”

Being an iconic classic, however, hasn’t protected “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” from being banned, bowdlerized and bleeped. It hasn’t protected the novel from being cleaned up, updated and “improved.”

A new effort to sanitize Huckleberry Finn comes from Alan Gribben, a professor of English at Auburn University, at Montgomery, AL, who has produced a new edition of Twain’s novel that replaces the word “nigger” with “slave.” Nigger, which appears in the book more than 200 times, was a common racial epithet in the antebellum South, used by Twain as part of his characters’ vernacular speech and as a reflection of mid-19th-century social attitudes along the Mississippi River.

Mr. Gribben has said he worried that the N-word had resulted in the novel falling off reading lists, and that he thought his edition would be welcomed by schoolteachers and university instructors who wanted to spare “the reader from a racial slur that never seems to lose its vitriol.” Never mind that today nigger is used by many rappers, who have reclaimed the word from its ugly past. Never mind that attaching the epithet slave to the character Jim — who has run away in a bid for freedom — effectively labels him as property, as the very thing he is trying to escape.

Controversies over “Huckleberry Finn” occur with predictable regularity. In 2009, just before Barack Obama’s inauguration, a high school teacher named John Foley wrote a guest column in The Seattle Post-Intelligencer in which he asserted that Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men, don’t belong on the curriculum anymore. “The time has arrived to update the literature we use in high school classrooms,” he wrote. “Barack Obama is president-elect of the United States, and novels that use the ‘N-word’ repeatedly need to go.”

Haven’t we learned by now that removing books from the curriculum just deprives children of exposure to classic works of literature? Worse, it relieves teachers of the fundamental responsibility of putting such books in context — of helping students understand that Huckleberry Finn actually stands as a powerful indictment of slavery (with Nigger Jim its most noble character), of using its contested language as an opportunity to explore the painful complexities of race relations in this country. To censor or redact books on school reading lists is a form of denial: shutting the door on harsh historical realities — whitewashing them or pretending they do not exist.

Mr. Gribben’s effort to update Huckleberry Finn (published in an edition with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by NewSouth Books), like Mr. Foley’s assertion that it’s an old book and “we’re ready for new,” ratifies the narcissistic contemporary belief that art should be inoffensive and accessible; that books, plays and poetry from other times and places should somehow be made to conform to today’s democratic ideals. It’s like the politically correct efforts in the ’80s to exile great authors like Conrad and Melville from the canon because their work does not feature enough women or projects colonialist attitudes.

Authors’ original texts should be sacrosanct intellectual property, whether a book is a classic or not. Tampering with a writer’s words underscores both editors’ extraordinary hubris and a cavalier attitude embraced by more and more people in this day of mash-ups, sampling and digital books — the attitude that all texts are fungible, that readers are entitled to alter as they please, that the very idea of authorship is old-fashioned.

Efforts to sanitize classic literature have a long, undistinguished history. Everything from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory have been challenged or have suffered at the hands of uptight editors. There have even been purified versions of the Bible (all that sex and violence!). Sometimes the urge to expurgate (if not outright ban) comes from the right, evangelicals and conservatives, worried about blasphemy, profane language and sexual innuendo. Fundamentalist groups, for instance, have tried to have dictionaries banned because of definitions offered for words like hot, tail, ball and nuts.

In other cases the drive to sanitize comes from the left, eager to impose its own multicultural, feminist worldviews and worried about offending religious or ethnic groups. Michael Radford’s 2004 film version of “The Merchant of Venice” (starring Al Pacino) revised the play to elide potentially offensive material, serving up a nicer, more sympathetic Shylock and blunting tough questions about anti-Semitism. More absurdly, a British theater company in 2002 changed the title of its production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” to “The Bellringer of Notre Dame.”

Whether it comes from conservatives or liberals, there is a patronizing Big Brother aspect to these literary fumigations. We, the censors, need to protect you, the naïve, delicate reader. We, the editors, need to police writers (even those from other eras), who might have penned something that might be offensive to someone sometime. According to Noel Perrin’s 1969 book, Dr. Bowdler’s Legacy: A History of Expurgated Books in England and America, Victorians explained their distaste for the colorful, earthy works of 18th-century writers like Laurence Sterne and Henry Fielding by invoking the principle of “moral progress” and their own ethical superiority: “People in the 18th century, and earlier, didn’t take offense at coarse passages, because they were coarse themselves.”

In 1807 Thomas Bowdler — an English doctor, from whose name comes the verb bowdlerize — and his sister published the first edition of an expurgated Shakespeare, which he argued would be more appropriate for women and children than the original, with its bawdy language and naughty double-entendres. In their Family Shakespeare version of “Romeo and Juliet,” Mercutio’s playfully suggestive line “the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon” is changed to the far blander “the hand of the dial is now upon the point of noon.” Similarly, Iago’s declaration in “Othello” that “your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs” is changed to “your daughter and the Moor are now together.”

This is the academic equivalent of Ed Sullivan in 1967 prudishly making the Rolling Stones change “Let’s spend the night together” to “Let’s spend some time together.” Or Cole Porter having to change “cocaine” in “I Get a Kick Out of You” to “perfume in Spain.”

Euphemisms are sometimes pushed on writers by their publishers. Rinehart & Company persuaded Norman Mailer to use “fug” in his 1948 novel The Naked and the Dead instead of the F-word. Mailer later said the incident caused him “great embarrassment” because Tallulah Bankhead’s press agent supposedly planted a story in the papers that went, “Oh, hello, you’re Norman Mailer. You’re the young man that doesn’t know how to spell.”

Some years later Ballantine Books published an expurgated version of Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s celebrated sci-fi classic about book banning, in which words like “hell” and “abortion” were deleted; it was reportedly 13 years before Mr. Bradbury became aware of the changes and demanded that the original version be restored.

Although it’s hard to imagine a theater company today using one of Bowdler’s Shakespeare adaptations — say, changing “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!” in “Macbeth” to “out, crimson spot!” — the language police are staging a comeback. Not just with an expurgated Huckleberry Finn but with political efforts to clamp down on objectionable language. Last year The Boston Globe reported that California lawmakers first voted for, then tabled a resolution declaring a No Cuss Week, that South Carolina had debated a sweeping anti-profanity bill, and that conservative groups like the Parents Television Council have complained about vulgarities creeping into family-hour shows on network television.

But while James V. O’Connor, author of the book Cuss Control, argues that people can and should find word substitutions, even his own Web site grants Rhett Butler a “poetic license” exemption in Gone With the Wind. “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a hoot”? Now that’s damnable. Ω

[Michiko Kakutani (角谷 美智子) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic for The New York Times. The only child of noted Yale mathematician Shizuo Kakutani, Michiko Kakutani was born in New Haven, Connecticut and received her B.A. in English literature from Yale University in 1976. After graduation she initially worked as a reporter for The Washington Post and then Time magazine from 1977-1979. In 1979, she joined The New York Times as a reporter and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1998.]

Copyright © 2011 The New York Times Company
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The First Drafts Of American History
By Adam Kirsch

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When the new House of Representatives convened on Thursday, the Republican leadership kept its promise to start the session by reading the text of the Constitution aloud. This break from Congressional tradition had a polemical purpose: Representative Robert Goodlatte, the Virginia Republican who came up with the idea, remarked that “lots of my constituents have said that Congress has gone beyond its powers granted in the Constitution.”

If the reading was meant to be a win for originalism, however, it stumbled out of the gate, over the text of Article I, Section 2. This deals with the apportionment of House seats among the states, which is said to be based on “the whole number of free persons” and “three-fifths of all other persons.” Rather than draw attention to this infamous euphemism for slaves, the Congressional readers decided to omit those portions, on the grounds that they had been superseded by the 14th Amendment.

It just so happened this conspicuous omission came days after a small publisher, NewSouth Books, announced a new edition of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn that will replace its uses of the word “nigger” with “slave.” Here, again, was a historic text clashing with contemporary sensibilities, and forced to submit.

Taken together, the two cases show the comedy of euphemism: trying to distract us from something ugly only makes the ugliness harder to miss. To the book’s new editor, the Twain scholar Alan Gribben, “slave” is less offensive than “nigger”; to the Constitution’s drafters, “all other persons” was less offensive than “slave.” By refusing to utter even that legalism, the House showed that euphemism can end only in embarrassed silence.

The censored edition of Huckleberry Finn has been loudly condemned. Certainly, as a writer, I see the strength of all the arguments against tinkering with the original, not least because it would be a terrible precedent — start eliminating everything offensive in literary history, and you’ll have little left. But once I returned to the actual novel, I began to feel torn, because I could imagine the effect that its deluge of epithets would have on a young reader, especially a young black reader. (Open the book to the passage in the second chapter that begins, “Strange niggers would stand with their mouths open,” and see if you would be able to read it to a room full of ninth graders.)

Huckleberry Finn was intended, of course, as an attack on racism. In its most famous scene, Huck hides the runaway slave Jim from a party of slave-hunters, and then feels guilty for having done so. “I knowed very well I had done wrong,” he says, though the reader, and Twain, know he has done right. It’s a searching demonstration of the way conscience is not just innate but also learned, and how confusing it can be to do right in a society dedicated to wrong — the same kinds of questions that bedeviled Hannah Arendt at the Eichmann trial.

Yet all those racial epithets are a reminder that, when Twain wrote it, the audience he had in mind — the America for which he wrote — was segregated. He did not worry about constantly writing “nigger,” because he was writing about blacks, not for them. And for many readers, encountering classic literature means sometimes finding yourself excluded, or insulted, in this way. For blacks reading Twain, certainly, but also for Jews reading Shakespeare or Dickens, and for women reading, say, Plato (among countless others).

But the books we cherish, which deserve the name of classics, feel essentially humane to us, despite their limitations, even their bigotry. “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not,” W. E. B. DuBois said. We feel that the exclusion of whole classes of humanity from the author’s imagined audience — which means, from his idea of the fully human — is due to ignorance or carelessness; that if he were to think and feel more freely, more deeply, he would acknowledge that all people are equally human.

This is also the promise of American history, and above all of the Constitution. Unlike Twain’s novel, that classic American text was written in the expectation that it would be corrected. And it needed correction, or amendment, for the same essential reason: the framers’ imagination of the people they led was not full enough. It took a devastating civil war, whose sesquicentennial we are now observing, to revise the Constitution in the direction of justice. When the House readers decided to skip the parts of the Constitution that reveal its original limitations, they were minimizing that history, pretending that our founding document was flawless from the beginning.

No, Congress may not go “beyond its powers granted in the Constitution,” as Representative Goodlatte insisted. But to believe that American institutions were ever perfect makes it too easy to believe that they are perfect now. Both assumptions, one might say, are sins against the true spirit of the Constitution, which demands that we keep reimagining our way to a more perfect union. Ω

[Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic and a contributing editor to Tablet. His most recent book of poetry is Invasions (2008). Kirsch is a graduate of Harvard College.]

Copyright © 2011 The New York Times Company

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