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Mark Twain Revisited: The Ethics of Revisionist History January 6, 2011

Posted by legalethicsemporium in Law, Ethics & Society, Racial Discrimination, U.S. Constitution.
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Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer are about to live in a world in which the words “nigger” and “injun” have been retrospectively deleted from their vocabularies….they will now be speaking in terms of “slaves” and “indians.”  Just as Twain noted that he worked “painstakingly” to reproduce the dialects of the time, apparently Professor Alan Gribben has  worked diligently to remove and replace the authentic language. While presumably Mark Twain endeavored to author entertaining and meaningful fiction, Professor Gribben’s intentions are to render Twain’s works less “painful” and more acceptable to modern audiences who have been hurt, offended or out right banned the works.

(Leaving the First Amendment issue of banning books for another day…..) Professor’s Gribben’s new publication begs the question: Does a sanitized Huck and Tom enlighten today’s readers or deny the history of our society and undermine Mark Twain’s literary contributions? Some say that we must all change to reflect what is acceptable in our time and that includes a deceased and legendary Mark Twain. Others view Huck and Tom not only as endearing characters, but also as invaluable reminders of life as it was in their America—two boys whose adventures are set in a sociological time period that is truthful and poignant even as it may be painful or unpleasant to confront.

Rather than being offended by the language of Twain’s works, perhaps there is a lesson in studying the story not only for the fictional writing style, but also as a slice of history, In fact, my son who is currently reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in his 10th grade english class, responded to the news of the new version by explaining to me that,”the language of the book is a large part of the point of the book.” Simply stated …and clear that he didn’t see much point in reading about Huck and Tom if the context in which their adventure occurs is altered and rendered less authentic.

As always, the test of time will determine whether Huck and Tom will remain more popular in their “native” language or whether society will embrace Professor’s Gribben’s “translation.”  Regardless, our history remains…

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