Censoring Mark Twain

This post contains uncensored language which some readers may find offensive. Normally, I redact these particular words, but in this particular instance I feel the point is completely lost if I do so. Those who may be easily offended by a frank discussion of censorship, which is itself uncensored, may wish to skip this post.

This story generated a lot of buzz when it was reported. And I still believe, having seen my own share of censorship and having faced a little myself, that it is worthy of comment even though quite a bit of time has passed.

Before I go any further, the writing of this post involved some of my most difficult judgment calls in the history of this blog. I carefully thought about whether or not to post about this topic, and if so, exactly what to say. I realize some are easily offended. I also weighed that against the reality that it is quite difficult to have a matter-of-fact discussion about censorship without mentioning the actual words actually censored in certain cases, and sometimes, those words offend. I also felt it also would seem a bit hypocritical on my part to attack the censorship of a certain offensive word, and censor that word myself in my own post. Thus the disclaimer, above.

KTRK-TV (among many others) recently reported on the editing of Mark Twain’s most celebrated works “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “Tom Sawyer.” Specifically, the redaction of the word “nigger” (replacing it with “slave”). The intentions of Alan Gribben, the Twain scholar who is working with NewSouth Books to publish these “sanitized” versions of Twain’s famous works, states in the story, referring to a very long list of hateful emails sent his way about the edits: “Not one of [the many emails] mentions the word. They dance around it.” He cites this as evidence the word “nigger” makes people uncomfortable.

I think I’ve already answered the question that would undoubtedly be on Mr. Gribben’s mind were he to read this. No, the word “nigger” makes me no more uncomfortable than the word “fuck” or similar words which are unfit for polite company or radio/television broadcast.

To be fair, I don’t use the word in everyday conversation. I respect that people find it quite offensive, particularly those of African heritage, against whom it has been used as a rather vile slur. However, there’s a difference between merely not using the word today in polite conversation, and retroactively censoring it from the works of a respected author.

To me, it makes as much sense to censor “nigger” out of Mark Twain’s writing as it does to censor words like “shit” or “fuck” out of, say, a Stephen King novel, or George Carlin’s now infamous “Seven Dirty Words.” The comedic effect of, say, Tabatha Coffey or Gordon Ramsey saying something that has to be beeped (or blanked) is cute the first few times, but quickly borders on tiresome. And I feel it did distract from the experience not being able to hear Mike Rowe say “This is Shit Creek” in its uncensored glory on a certain now-infamous episode of Dirty Jobs.

It’s understandable that parents don’t want their grade-school-age children going off to school and repeating some of the words the beeps replace. I find myself wishing for an uncensored audio track, which is easily possible given today’s technology with minimal overhead. (In essence, transmit it as a difference between the unmodified audio and the edits, thus only taking up bandwidth when something is beeped out.)

I think it cheapens an author’s legacy, especially in the case of Mark Twain, to go back and replace certain words he used that predate the “political correctness” movement by decades, for dubious reasons. There is no avoiding the fact that Mark Twain wrote “nigger” in the original texts, and the sooner we realize this and quit dancing around it, the better.

“Censorship is like telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it.”
— Mark Twain

I couldn’t agree more.

(Due to the subject matter and content, I am relaxing the usual prohibition on offensive language for comments on this post and this post only.)