I rather like the amount of background provided by the BBC News report of the controversial new edition of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. For those yet to feel the repercussions of this story, it concerns the editorial decisions of Alan Gribben, Professor of English at Auburn University Montgomery in Alabama; and, as of this morning, I would guess that the level of controversy over his editing of Twain will be matched only by the reaction to the BBC describing him as a “Twain scholar.” From my point of view, that phrase is not only an inaccurate description of Gribben but also an insult to Twain.
What has created such a stir has been primarily Gribben’s decision to replace all instances of that notorious N-word with “slave.” Similar reasoning apparently prompted him also to replace all occurrences of “injun” with “Indian.” The BBC account reports Gribben as saying that he has given many public readings of Twain, from which he observed that “when he replaced the [N-] word with ‘slave’, audiences were more comfortable.”
The BBC editors were rather clever in setting the light under which this remark would be read. They preceded it with a quote given by Cindy Lovell, Executive Director of The Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum, to Reuters:
He wrote to make us squirm and to poke us with a sharp stick. That was the purpose.
Not only do I heartily endorse Lovell, but also I wish to be bold enough to suggest that her remark applies to just about any author worth reading. There is something infantile about reading only for the comfort of experiencing what we already know. Reading matter that lacks any sign of that “sharp stick” is probably not worth the effort of reading.
This brings to mind not only what publishers are doing these days in the name of market share but also the recent advertising campaign for the iPad. I am referring to all those billboards that show an iPad comfortably settled into a lap at the near end of a pair of outstretched legs, suggesting that the best place for your iPad is in the hammock in your back yard (even if your yard lacks a hammock or your home lacks a yard). This may be an appropriate setting for a text that makes only marginal effort to engage with the mind (leading me to suggest that this explains why Decision Points has been such a popular Kindle gift); but it has little to do with reading, at least in the ways that I hope our schools try to approach that activity. From this point of view, my argument amounts to an extended elaboration on how The Times of London chose to describe Gribben’s edition: They called it “a well-intentioned act of cultural vandalism and obscurantism that constricts rather than expands the life of the mind.” I wish I could have said it that well.