As a fellow member of the Law Law Land blogging team, it may be wholly inappropriate for me to comment on Dan Nabel’s recent post “Billions of Bilious Blue Blistering Bowdlerizers! (And What Can Be Done About Them).” [Ed. Note: Nope, not inappropriate at all, Steve.] But when I read about publishing house NewSouth Books’ expurgatation of the word “nigger” from Huckleberry Finn, I could not but help think about Winston Smith, the protagonist of George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984. (Law Law Land: come for the legal analysis, stay for the literary exegesis!)
For those who have not read 1984 or who have forgotten it, allow me to explain. In 1984, Winston Smith is employed by the “Ministry of Truth,” which is a branch of the oligarchical, dictatorial, totalitarian, badsoundingadjective-ial, scaryword-ian government of Oceania. He works at the Ministry as an editor in the “historical revisionism” office, where his job consists of editing previously published works to replace true accounts of history with new, false histories intended to support the existing status quo (nerds might call this “retconning”). When he is done with the original document, he is required to drop it down the “Memory Hole,” an incinerator that is connected by a tube to his desk. The only past that may (and can) exist is a past that corresponds with the Party line. [Ever wondered about the distinction between “may” and “can”? Orwell dramatically demonstrates the difference in 1984. It is not that one alternative is permitted and one is not (i.e., may). Rather, it is that there is no alternative. “True” history is not even possible. History “can” be only as the Ministry says.] Those who respectfully disagree are executed, at which point it becomes Winston’s job to delete all references to them from the written record, so that no one can point to any evidence of the offenders ever having existed at all.
Which brings me to NewSouth Books’ version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Mark Twain’s masterpiece is so in large part because of its history. This novel could not be written today. And, lucky for us, it was not written today. It was written in 1884. (Coincidentally, 100 years before the year — not the book — 1984.) Although the book is set in the Antebellum Era South, Twain was writing it years after the Civil War and just as Reconstruction was coming to an end. The book brutally satirizes the Old South and the sensibilities of its citizens. Twain portrays the stereotypical, slave owning southerners as buffoons. And he does that in large part through his unmatched use of Southern dialect. At the time, this dialect commonly used the word “nigger.” Twain used the word (in conjunction with the hundreds of other “Southern” words and phrases interspersed throughout the book) both to lend his characters a sense of authenticity and to make a sharp point — that the Old South’s view of slaves and slavery was immoral and ignorant. Continue reading the full story . . . »