“But the truth is, that when a Library expels a book of mine and leaves an unexpurgated Bible lying around where unprotected youth and age can get hold of it, the deep unconscious irony of it delights me and doesn’t anger me.”
— Samuel L. Clemens, letter to Mrs. F. G. Whitmore, February 7, 1907
You’ve seen the story by now: a book publisher is bringing out a sanitized version of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Nigger Jim will be Slave Jim; Injun Joe will be Indian Joe. I’ll be surprised if they’ve left Huck’s (and Twain’s) greatest line alone rather than change it to, “All right, then, I’ll go to heck.”
I do not understand the mind of the censor (if you’ll pardon the overstatement). The arrogant, patronizing, patriarchal hubris that says “I know what’s good for you and everyone else” is beyond — perhaps beneath — my comprehension. And there’s a special sort of angst when it comes from the chairman of a university English department, the very person who should be defending literature against insipid bowdlerization rather than committing it in broad daylight.
I suspect Mr. Clemens would have enjoyed this literary tussle. Huckleberry Finn received the disapprobation of finer folks shortly after it was published. Clemens was certain every scathing review and attempt at censorship sold more copies of the book. He may have been right. But increased sales of the unadulterated version will not excuse the moronic damage inflicted on this classic in the first place.
Ron Powers, author of the wonderful biography Mark Twain: A Life, has written an excellent piece about what’s being done to Twain’s masterpiece. He succinctly details the reasons why this is a Bad Thing.
The final word, as is apropos, belongs to the author himself:
“When people let Huck Finn alone he goes peacefully along, damaging a few children here and there and yonder, but there will be plenty of children in heaven without those, so it is no great matter. It is only when well-meaning people expose him that he gets his real chance to do harm. Temporarily, then, he spreads havoc all around in the nurseries and no doubt does prodigious harm while he has his chance. By and by, let us hope, people that really have the best interests of the rising generation at heart will become wise and not stir Huck up.”
— Mark Twain’s Autobiography