Whitewashing History

By now most of you had to have heard about a new edition of Mark Twain’s classics “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn” being published with a few minor edits. I was going to provide you a link to a news story, but at this point the internet is so flooded with articles and opinion pieces about it that I couldn’t decide what link to use. If you want to see some stories about it, go to Google News and type in Mark Twain and go to town.

Now it’s no secret that I’m against censorship, and also, coming from Illinois, a place where a day trip to the Mark Twain cave complex was almost a required rite of passage, I have very strong emotions about someone messing with Twain’s works. And despite him being a plane trip away from the land of Twain, my friend Greg Bullard also had a strong reaction to the news, and so he emailed the publishing company about his concerns. His email, while passionate, was respectful and expressed a level of understanding of the publisher’s position. What happened next was remarkable, he got a response.

Obviously given my horrible track record for getting responses to my letters, I was amazed that Greg received a prompt response. What was even more amazing was that the email he got in return acknowledged Greg’s concerns and respectfully presented their argument for the edits. Yes, in this land of 24 hour news cycles churning out controversy to fill air time, a land where thanks to the internet people can immediately present their knee jerk reactions for the whole world to see without the writer giving a moment’s thought to any repercussions or another individual’s feelings, in this land of hypersensitivity, I witnessed a respectful exchange of opposing positions. It made me proud to be human.

Here are Greg’s thoughts and reflections on this issue and his experience with the publishing company.

Whitewashing History
by Greg Bullard

“Who told you you might meddle with such hifalut’n foolishness, hey?” – Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn.

The past is a tenuous thing, held together by our perceptions, which are themselves, shaped by the world around us. The written word marks the most concrete bulwark of that past. Once we start chipping away at those words, I fear for the stability of our cultural history.

By now, many of you have guessed where I am going with this. NewSouth Books is soon to release new editions of Mark Twain’s beloved classics Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, but with a few “minor” changes.

Upon reading of the changes, I was incensed, furious and several other words. I took to my keyboard and within minutes had fired off a letter to three key members of the publishing team at NewSouth Books. Figuring I had done my due diligence, I dropped the issue and went on about my day. Then, not two hours later, the unthinkable happened, Randall Williams, Editor, NewSouth Books, replied to me.

Among other things, Mr. Williams wrote, “Professor Gribben’s intent is to make Twain’s boy books accessible to students whose teachers do not now teach the books because of the repeated use of a single word.”

Along with his reply, he included the introduction for the books written by Dr. Alan Gribben, English Professor for Auburn University at Montgomery, and co-founder of The Mark Twain Circle of America.

Professor Gribben wrote, “We may applaud Twain’s ability as a prominent American literary realist to record the speech of a particular region during a specific historical era, but abusive racial insults that bear distinct connotations of permanent inferiority nonetheless repulse modern-day readers. Twain’s two books do not deserve ever to join that list of literary “classics” he once humorously defined as those “which people praise and don’t read,” yet the long-lofty status of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn has come under question in recent decades.”

Having read the introduction, I replied and reluctantly agreed with one point. If their editing of those two words results in Twain’s works being presented to a larger audience, I would be hard pressed to fault them.

However, I went on to state that they are setting a dangerous precedent. While we must abide the loss of subtle nuances from translation of texts, we are not yet at the point where English has changed so much that Twain requires translation. While some of the slang and casual dialog may be more difficult for inexperienced readers, it does not present an insurmountable obstacle.
What is next, I asked? Would we see a similar treatment for To Kill a Mockingbird? A note to whomever tries it, Harper Lee is still alive, and I suspect she would deign to come out of her seclusion to take that fight personally to the editor who is so bold as to change her words.

Once again, Mr. Williams replied with a record of his personal and professional struggle against racism and other -isms. He concluded by writing, “But this edition of Twain has a specific purpose: to broaden the audience for the books.”

I honestly wish them luck. If Twain’s words see a larger audience because of these changes, which is the lesser of the two evils? For my vote, I would think an education with 99% of the words Twain wrote in those books is better than one with 0% of them.

However, in the end, I will still fight the whitewashing of our past. The FBI agents in ET had shotguns, Han shot first and the most honorable man to ride a raft with on the mighty Mississippi is Nigger Jim.

I invite you now to share your opinion, if you have one, on this issue. However, in keeping with the spirit of respectful discourse that Greg and NewSouth Books have established, I ask that you follow their example in debating this issue.

About Greg Bullard:
Greg currently resides in Austin, TX, trying to do his part to Keep Austin Weird. While his wife, Julia, and daughter, Emily, both work hard to keep him on his toes, it is Julia’s red editing pen that does the most work. When he is not muddling his way through some fiction, he usually writes about What Greg Eats.