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American Literature – Mark Twain

* Don’t change one word, not even the “N”-word.

source: http://etext.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=Twa2Huc.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/parsed&tag=public&part=1&division=div1

EXCERPTS from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, self-published by Mark Twain in 1885:

By and by they fetched the niggers in and had prayers, and then everybody was off to bed. I went up to my room with a piece of candle, and put it on the table. Then I set down in a chair by the window and tried to think of something cheerful, but it warn’t no use. I felt so lonesome I most wished I was dead. The stars were shining, and the leaves rustled in the woods ever so mournful; and I heard an owl, away off, who-whooing about somebody that was dead, and a whippowill and a dog crying about somebody that was going to die; and the wind was trying to whisper something to me, and I couldn’t make out what it was, and so it made the cold shivers run over me. Then away out in the woods I heard that kind of a sound that a ghost makes when it wants to tell about something that’s on its mind and can’t make itself understood, and so can’t rest easy in its grave, and has to go about that way every night grieving. I got so down-hearted and scared I did wish I had some company. Pretty soon a spider went crawling up my shoulder, and I flipped it off and it lit in the candle; and before I could budge it was all shriveled up. I didn’t need anybody to tell me that that was an awful bad sign and would fetch me some bad luck, so I was scared and most shook the clothes off of me. I got up and turned around in my tracks three times and crossed my breast every time; and then I tied up a little lock of my hair with a thread to keep witches away. But I hadn’t no confidence. You do that when you’ve lost a horseshoe that you’ve found, instead of nailing it up over the door, but I hadn’t ever heard anybody say it was any way to keep off bad luck when you’d killed a spider.

I set down again, a-shaking all over, and got out my pipe for a smoke; for the house was all as still as death now, and so the widow wouldn’t know. Well, after a long time I heard the clock away off in the town go boom — boom — boom — twelve licks; and all still again — stiller than ever. Pretty soon I heard a twig snap down in the dark amongst the trees — something was a stirring. I set still and listened. Directly I could just barely hear a “me-yow! me-yow!” down there. That was good! Says I,“me-yow! me-yow!” as soft as I could, and then I put out the light and scrambled out of the window on to the shed. Then I slipped down to the ground and crawled in among the trees, and, sure enough, there was Tom Sawyer waiting for me.

WE went tiptoeing along a path amongst the trees back towards the end of the widow’s garden, stooping down so as the branches wouldn’t scrape our heads. When we was passing by the kitchen I fell over a root and made a noise. We scrouched down and laid still. Miss Watson’s big nigger, named Jim, was setting in the kitchen door; we could see him pretty clear, because there was a light behind him. He got up and stretched his neck out about a minute, listening. Then he says:

“Who dah?”

He listened some more; then he come tiptoeing down and stood right between us; we could a touched him, nearly. Well, likely it was minutes and minutes that there warn’t a sound, and we all there so close together. There was a place on my ankle that got to itching, but I dasn’t scratch it; and then my ear begun to itch; and next my back, right between my shoulders. Seemed like I’d die if I couldn’t scratch. Well, I’ve noticed that thing plenty times since. If you are with the quality, or at a funeral, or trying to go to sleep when you ain’t sleepy — if you are anywheres where it won’t do for you to scratch, why you will itch all over in upwards of a thousand places. Pretty soon Jim says:

“Say, who is you? Whar is you? Dog my cats ef I didn’ hear sumf’n. Well, I know what I’s gwyne to do: I’s gwyne to set down here and listen tell I hears it agin.”

*                    *                    *

(at the end of the book)

“Who’s that? Answer, or I’ll shoot!”

But we didn’t answer; we just unfurled our heels and shoved. Then there was a rush, and a bang, bang, bang! and the bullets fairly whizzed around us! We heard them sing out:

“Here they are! They’ve broke for the river! After ’em, boys, and turn loose the dogs!”

So here they come, full tilt. We could hear them because they wore boots and yelled, but we didn’t wear no boots and didn’t yell. We was in the path to the mill; and when they got pretty close on to us we dodged into the bush and let them go by, and then dropped in behind them. They’d had all the dogs shut up, so they wouldn’t scare off the robbers; but by this time somebody had let them loose, and here they come, making powwow enough for a million; but they was our dogs; so we stopped in our tracks till they catched up; and when they see it warn’t nobody but us, and no excitement to offer them, they only just said howdy, and tore right ahead towards the shouting and clattering; and then we up-steam again, and whizzed along after them till we was nearly to the mill, and then struck up through the bush to where my canoe was tied, and hopped in and pulled for dear life towards the middle of the river, but didn’t make no more noise than we was obleeged to. Then we struck out, easy and comfortable, for the island where my raft was; and we could hear them yelling and barking at each other all up and down the bank, till we was so far away the sounds got dim and died out. And when we stepped on to the raft I says:

Now, old Jim, you’re a free man again, and I bet you won’t ever be a slave no more.”

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* You know Tom Sawyer wouldn’t bother about whitewashing history by removing the word “nigger.” If we just pretend the word didn’t happen, then things don’t make no sense. Huck’s moral dilemma and Jim’s transformation – from oppressed man to free man – is wrapped up in that word. The climax of the story would suffer a debilitating letdown without the precursor of that one word, which tells so much about the recognized separation of the black and white races in a single breath. The pejorative moniker pervaded everyday life in antebellum America, so that children thought nothing of it. By using the sobriquet-turned-post-Civil War-epithet, Twain authenticates the America in which he grew up and simultaneously challenges the reader to question for himself or herself what is moral and what is unjust. The dogs sniff Huck and Jim, and then pass them by, because the dogs don’t know what men call each other is a bad or a good thing except by pitch and cadence of voice. The scene illustrates the unnatural system of slavery. However, the word “nigger” didn’t end with the end of slavery. The now unspeakable word in many parts of America circa 2010 serves as a window into another time. When the word is read (even aloud) in the context of a story like Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, it helps us explain the continuing struggle for equality among the races. It took 200-plus years for us to elect our first black President, not because of slavery, but because of ideas that perpetuated discrimination based upon skin color packaged succinctly into one little word. It is still off-limits for white people to say it to black people, but ironically the word has become a term of brotherhood for some African American people.

** The same kind of whitewashing of American history took place today in Congress, when the Republican majority decided to read the amended Constitution of the United States without mentioning the “3/5 Compromise.

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The Problem We All Live With by Norman Rockwell

http://smidgetdesign.files.wordpress.com/2009/09/the-problem-we-all-live-with-norman-rockwell.jpg?w=872&h=561

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source: http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2011/01/05/does-one-word-change-huckleberry-finn?hp

EXCERPT:

A new edition of “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” has generated much controversy because it will replace the word “nigger,” which occurs 219 times in the book, with “slave.” (The edition also substitutes “Indian” for “injun.”) Alan Gribben, an English professor at Auburn University at Montgomery, proposed the idea to the publisher because he believes the pervasive use of that word makes it harder for students to read or absorb the book. In an introduction to the new edition, he wrote, “even at the level of college and graduate school, students are capable of resenting textual encounters with this racial appellative.”

source: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/06/opinion/06thu4.html?_r=1&ref=opinion

EXCERPTS:

Mr. Gribben says he wants to make these American classics readable again — for young readers and for anyone who is hurt by the use of an epithet that would have been ubiquitous in Missouri in the 1830s and 1840s, which is when both books are set. He says he discovered how much Twain’s language offended readers when he began giving talks about “Tom Sawyer” all across Alabama in 2009. He has also acknowledged that what he calls “textual purists” will be horrified by his sanitized versions of the two classics.

We are horrified, and we think most readers, textual purists or not, will be horrified too. The trouble isn’t merely adulterating Twain’s text. It’s also adulterating social, economic and linguistic history. Substituting the word “slave” makes it sound as though all the offense lies in the “n-word” and has nothing to do with the institution of slavery. Worse, it suggests that understanding the truth of the past corrupts modern readers, when, in fact, this new edition is busy corrupting the past.

When “Huckleberry Finn” was published, Mark Twain appended a note on his effort to reproduce “painstakingly” the dialects in the book, including several backwoods dialects and “the Missouri negro dialect.” What makes “Huckleberry Finn” so important in American literature isn’t just the story, it’s the richness, the detail, the unprecedented accuracy of its spoken language. There is no way to “clean up” Twain without doing irreparable harm to the truth of his work.

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