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The Difference between the Lightning Bug and the Lightning


Twain New SouthNew South Books, an Alabama publisher, plans to release a version of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn wherein the n-word is replaced by the word “slave.” 219 times. The professor who originally approached the publisher with the idea did so because he himself felt uncomfortable using the word in class. I, of course, feel uncomfortable even writing it out. And if I were teaching Huck Finn, I wouldn’t utter it either, though its presence certainly wouldn’t keep me from teaching the book in the classroom and discussing this discomfort with my students.

Needless to say, the release of this “revised” or “amended” version of Twain’s work has started quite a debate. So what follows is a round-up of some the conversations currently taking place:

  • Michiko Kakutani, in the New York Times, has this to say:

    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.

  • In the Guardian, Peter Messent, the author of The Cambridge Introduction to Mark Twain, writes:

    Language counts here. As Twain himself said: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

  • At salon.com, Mary Elizabeth Williams is more open to a revised edition, noting that “Publishers abridge classic works to suit the reading and maturity levels of different audiences all the time.” She also points out that “it’s not as if Twain’s original version is going away.” Many have pointed out that some teachers might feel more comfortable not having the word come up in the classroom; the issues of the book still remain without that offensive utterance. After all, Williams notes:

    [Twain] didn’t shy away from Huck’s flaws and his small-mindedness. He didn’t shy away either from his bravery and love. He didn’t make it easy for readers to unconditionally embrace that scamp; he didn’t want to. That was his genius. If a modified version of Twain can bring that brilliance to a new audience, that’s probably not the worst thing in the world. But the great satirist who created Tom Sawyer would surely appreciate the irony of finding himself subjected to such an impressive, selective whitewashing.

  • The New York Times’ Room for Debate features several different perspectives. Francine Prose questions the substitution of 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. Jim’s problem is not that he is called a “nigger” but that he is chattel who can be freed or returned to his master.

  • Paul Butler, associate dean and the Carville Dickinson Benson Research Professor of Law at George Washington University, comments that teachers who do choose to teach the text (note that the title of his Op-Ed is “Why Read That Book?”) should consider both sides, each of which has consequences that should not be taken overlooked:

    It’s complicated, “nigger” is. I suffered through Huckleberry Finn in high school, with the white kids going out of their way to say “Nigger Jim” and the teacher’s tortured explanation that Twain’s “nigger” didn’t really mean nigger, or meant it ironically, or historically, or symbolically. Whatever. I could live my whole life fine if I never read that book again.

  • Jane Smiley addresses the way that Huck Finn might be taught to students, noting that their shock and revulsion to the use of term—or lack of—could be a moment to discuss exactly what Twain intended:

    Twain the author is by no means unaware of how Huck’s use of that word increasingly misrepresents his feelings toward Jim, and so the word is intentionally loaded. “Slave” doesn’t carry the same shock value, and so it tones down what Twain is getting at.

    She continues:

    If students recoil — well, perhaps that is an educational opportunity, too, for both those who recoil and those who don’t. When a nation’s history is fraught with conflict, as our history is, the question always arises — can we talk with children and teenagers honestly about that conflict, or does that just generate more conflict? The brave view is that talking it out helps work it out. Maybe the realistic view is that talking it out inflames the issues further. But that is America, especially these days.

  • Finally, in a New York Times Op-Ed entitled “The First Drafts of American History,” Adam Kirsch examines the issue in conjunction with this very fraught history, specifically regarding the convening of the new House of Representatives, who began by reading the Constitution aloud and omitting altogether the section that uses “three-fifths of all other persons” as a euphemism for “slaves.” He writes:

    … the Congressional readers decided to omit those portions, on the grounds that they had been superseded by the 14th Amendment.

    Here, contemporary sensibility won over historical text. But Kirsch notes the following when we examine this together with Huck Finn:

    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.

    But then he makes the important, crucial distinction:

    Unlike Twain’s novel, that classic American text was written in the expectation that it would be corrected.

  • And what would a literary-political-social conversation be without Stephen Colbert?
  • The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
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    • Michael Rudin

      And let’s not forget “Hipster Huckleberry Finn”…

      http://blogs.phoenixnewtimes.com/jackalope/2011/01/huckleberry_finn_for_hipsters.php

    • Lee Thomas

      Both as a writer and a reader, I’m inclined to side with Michiko and the defenders of the original Twain language. Isn’t part of reading fiction seeing a snapshot of a the historical period in which a writer worked – warts, ugliness and all? Most worrisome to me is this idea of “euphemism” as being a way to translate down things to young people. Practically, it means that frank and honest discussion is less likely to occur. I’m for the integrity of the text as a way to have those difficult conversations about our own past.

    • Charlotte

      Ooh, what a great collection of links, thanks Natalie. Shall we add Michael Chabon on reading it to his kids?

    • They are talking so much about the word that its popularity will increase and the situation in the class will get even worse.

    • Jeremiah Chamberlin

      Lorrie Moore weighs in on the issue in today’s Times. In her Op-Ed entitled “Send Huck Finn to College,” she argues that this book isn’t appropriate for high school students to begin with, and that it could be better contextualized at the university level. She writes:

      An African-American 10th grader, in someone’s near-sighted attempt to get him newly appreciative of novels, does not benefit by being taken back right then to a time when a young white boy slowly realizes, sort of, the humanity of a black man, realizes that that black man is more than chattel even if that black man is also full of illogic and stereotypical superstitions.

    • Charlotte

      Wow. I’m coming late to this Lorrie Moore Op-ed, Jeremiah, but I find it sort of shocking. Anecdotal evidence about an audio-book version of Huck Finn during a car trip does not make a convincing argument about whether or not high school students should read this book. Sherman Alexie’s Diary of a Part-Time Indian is fine, but it’s no Huck Finn. I can’t stand that Moore suggests that the book is beyond high school students’ capabilities–to say that seems to deny them an enormous amount of intelligence and agency. I think perhaps the book should not be recommended on nation-wide high school reading lists, because of the very sad fact that we don’t have enough high school teachers who are capable of teaching its nuances and context. I don’t believe they have the training. But when a high school teacher can, and I do believe there are some fabulous high school teachers out there, I don’t see why HS students couldn’t learn a TON from the book, and then go on to re-read it in college on a different level.

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