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Lorrie Wood: Changing ‘Finn’ rewrites history

SCV Voices

Posted: January 22, 2011 9:32 p.m.
Updated: January 23, 2011 4:30 a.m.
 

In the wake of Arizona’s recent tragedies and the ensuing debate over the literal interpretation of political rhetoric, the question begging to be asked is: How does the general public recognize figurative language and interpret meaning beyond the confines of literal interpretation?

This is not a new question, at least not for the literary world. The well-known and often controversial Mark Twain often found his work under scrutiny because of questionable and profane language, not to mention unscrupulous characters and hoodlum youth.

The notorious banning of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” from the Massachusetts Concord Public Library in 1885 suggests the prevailing concern expressed today: Words have consequences.

While Twain’s provocative language did not leave anyone dead, it certainly continues to incite debate and controversy.

In fact, the recent decision by Alan Gribben, a professor and writer, to help publish a new version of this novel has many, including me, questioning the legitimacy of rewriting literature.   

I must be honest here.  In theory and from my scholarly perspective, replacing existing language seems a bit like fabricating history and entirely misinterprets Twain’s attempt to satire societal ills of all kinds.

We might as well be doing what Twain criticized his time for doing: making material too sentimental and entirely too digestible.

However, after reading responses from both sides of the issue, I was surprised to realize I had forgotten my own interaction with this book.

I recalled my four years teaching this novel to 11th-graders. Much of the text was read together as a class, and I modeled changing the N-word to slave and asked the rest of the class to follow my lead.

Students made the adjustment, and we read the book aloud as if the N-word were not even a part of the text.

I chose to do this because using this word made me very uncomfortable, and I was concerned that allowing the word in class may give students a feeling of liberty to use it elsewhere. 

Looking back, I believe that I would make the same decision again. I realize how this may make the case in support of eliminating the N-word from the novel, but making a temporary change as opposed to a permanent one is very different.

I was raised believing and continue to believe that using the “N-word” is inappropriate, and one that I would never use; nevertheless, when we erase a word entirely, we erase its meaning, and when we erase meaning, we fall prey to eradicating the ability to interact with a history that helps us learn how not to repeat such historical atrocities.

Twain not only models the historical implications of slavery, but also the progression of a relationship that went from ownership and property to one of mutual respect and friendship. It is just these kinds of literary relationships that high school teachers and college instructors must investigate.

Teachers and professors must continue to encourage students to look beyond the literal and help students understand that a writer’s figurative expression requires interpretation and critical thinking.

To simply replace language entirely with what we feel or even believe students should hear, risks taking away one of the most valuable lessons of learning.

It is true that we can never be 100-percent sure of Twain’s reasons for including the use of the N-word more than 200 times; however, if Twain’s intentions were to showcase the inequalities of race and then demonstrate that these same inequalities can evolve into a relationship of equality, his work should remain intact.

Twain used the vernacular of his time, which included language that today makes many uncomfortable and most find offensive.  Helping students learn how to interact with such controversial and even offensive material is a tool that will help them deal with life outside of textbooks, and this is why instructors must tread with care and sensitivity when teaching such texts.

A teacher can tell students words not to say or they can show them why such words perpetuate pain, which is why good teaching methods must accompany the reading of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” whether it is the edited version or not.

Lorrie Wood is a former high school teacher and an instructor at College of the Canyons. E-mail her at wood.lorrie@gmail.com. Her column reflects her own view and not necessarily those of The Signal.

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