I spent the majority of my winter break with my good friend Mark Twain. Though I didn’t read one of his landmark novels, I did spend a fair amount of time with a collection of Twain’s short stories leading up to the eerily misanthropic novella, “The Mysterious Stranger.”
Even though Twain has been dead for a little over a century now, he seems to have found himself in the eyes of the news of late. Interest in the author has been rekindled due to the release of the first volume of this three-volume uncensored autobiography. It’s only 100 years late, but I think I can forgive the man.
Twain’s unexpurgated autobiography was unreleased for over a century by the great author’s (often called not an American author, but the American author) own decree. He demanded so to avoid controversy and to protect those close to him but, according to Sarah Churchwell’s article in The Guardian last October, his demands were mostly met due to the fact that the unfinished drafts of his autobiography that he had left after his death were difficult for scholars to reconstruct.
Unfortunately for Mr. Twain, he just doesn’t seem to be able to avoid controversy. More recently, the famous author has become a point of conversation in the media because a new, censored edition of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” will be published in February. The new edition will replace all instances of the racial slurs “injun” and “nigger” with the words “Indian” and “slave,” respectively.
Though these words have caused enough trouble on their own — and one more than the other — there is something intrinsically wrong with changing an author’s work in such a manner. The story was written within a particular historical and societal context. Changing the wording changes the way the story is read completely.
Though the words may be harmful, Twain himself was an anti-racist and reading the novel doesn’t enforce racist ideals. They are in the book not to enforce what they represent but because they were used during the time period. To remove them is analogous to saying that the Holocaust never occurred.
There are, and have been, horrible events that have occurred throughout history and to attempt to erase their existence and their effects is criminal, even if only through word swaps. In the same manner, humans never were, and are still far from, perfect. It is the purpose of authors to capture that imperfection. Twain, in this case, sought to capture humanity by displaying its vulgarity.
Although there is nothing stopping this new edition of the novel from being printed, there is a danger in supporting it. There is a chance that, in our age of misplaced morals and hypersensitivity, this mutilated version of Twain’s work will be forced upon schools and slowly replace the original copy.
If we allow things that are “unpleasant,” deemed so by the majority or empowered minority, to simply be erased from existence, we are on a sad road. How much longer before we live in an Orwellian world, where we have a “Ministry of Truth” where the unwanted memories of the past are sent to the incinerator?
Twain would probably have found some humor in this situation, though he almost certainly would have disagreed with the choice. In 1907, Twain wrote a letter to Mrs. F.G. Whitmore in which he said, “The truth is, that when a Library expels a book of mine and leaves an unexpurgated Bible lying around where unprotected youth and age can get hold of it, the deep unconscious irony of it delights me and doesn’t anger me.”
Hopefully poor Samuel Clemens can be relieved of this small delight and this new edition won’t ever see library shelves.