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.
The most famous quote in the book makes the point beautifully. The book is told in the first person, by the main character, Huckleberry Finn. He has helped a runaway slave named Jim, which he knows very well is a crime. But Jim has also been his friend. More importantly, Jim is a real person. Huck is at a crossroads about what to do. Does he do the “right” thing and turn Jim in to the law as a runaway slave, a piece of property, or does he do the “wrong” thing and treat Jim like a human being and not turn him in?
So I was full of trouble, full as I could be; and didn’t know what to do. At last I had an idea; and I says, I’ll go and write the letter — and then see if I can pray. Why, it was astonishing, the way I felt as light as a feather right straight off, and my troubles all gone. So I got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote:
Miss Watson, your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville, and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send. Huck Finn.
I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking — thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ‘stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and suchlike times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had smallpox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.
It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
“All right, then, I’ll go to hell” — and tore it up.
Could this same excerpt be written with the word “slave” in place of “nigger”? Yes, of course, just as it might have been mostly accurate for Twain to call Jim a “poorly compensated agricultural worker.” [Ed. Note: Hat tip, Arthur Phillips.] But it wasn’t, and Twain didn’t. And while, as Dan’s post observes, there seems to be no legal way to stop NewSouth from making the switch (as long as they’re sufficiently clear about the revisions), to change Twain’s language in 2011 to remove that word changes history. In 1884, Twain chose the word that Huck Finn might have naturally used at the time and place the story is set. To remove that word and replace it with another, less offensive word, is to alter history. It diminishes and deletes history. It pretends as though such history never existed. And, as Orwell pointed out in1984, if we all pretend, then it will become real.
While NewSouth Books is not a dictatorial government entity, its decision to rewrite history is no less offensive. Orwell made many points in 1984. Though the book’s central message is a critique of totalitarianism, it is also an admonition against forgetting the past. Huckleberry Finn is a classic not because of the plot. It is a classic because of the point in our history when it was written and its use of the dialect of that time and place. To remove what we regard as offensive today from its text is to turn it into just another book.
At the beginning of 1984, Winston Smith commits a crime. He surreptitiously takes the written copy of the original history he has just rewritten and, instead of incinerating it, he pockets it so that he has a record of what really happened.
I think I am going to go out and buy a copy of the original Huckleberry Finn before society drops it down the Memory Hole.