Friday, January 7, 2011

The Morning Reading: "remembering mine"

In this morning's New York Times, Michiko Kakutani weighs in on the recent, uh, revision of Huck Finn which replaces the term "nigger" with the word "slave:"


Haven’t we learned by now that removing books from the curriculum just deprives children of exposure to classic works of literature? Worse, it relieves teachers of the fundamental responsibility of putting such books in context — of helping students understand that “Huckleberry Finn” actually stands as a powerful indictment of slavery (with Nigger Jim its most noble character), of using its contested language as an opportunity to explore the painful complexities of race relations in this country. To censor or redact books on school reading lists is a form of denial: shutting the door on harsh historical realities — whitewashing them or pretending they do not exist.

Mr. Gribben’s effort to update “Huckleberry Finn” (published in an edition with “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” by NewSouth Books), like Mr. Foley’s assertion that it’s an old book and “we’re ready for new,” ratifies the narcissistic contemporary belief that art should be inoffensive and accessible; that books, plays and poetry from other times and places should somehow be made to conform to today’s democratic ideals. It’s like the politically correct efforts in the ’80s to exile great authors like Conrad and Melville from the canon because their work does not feature enough women or projects colonialist attitudes.

Authors’ original texts should be sacrosanct intellectual property, whether a book is a classic or not. Tampering with a writer’s words underscores both editors’ extraordinary hubris and a cavalier attitude embraced by more and more people in this day of mash-ups, sampling and digital books — the attitude that all texts are fungible, that readers are entitled to alter as they please, that the very idea of authorship is old-fashioned.

I was thinking of this in the context of yesterday's reading of the Constitution by members of the House of Representatives.

The version offered up was the amended version, not the full original text with its three-fifths clause which deemed "slaves" as less than full-people for population counting purposes as well as other references.

This desire to shut the door to the past reminded me of a poem by the late poet Lucille Clifton:

why some people be mad at me sometimes

they ask me to remember

but they want me to remember

their memories

and I keep on remembering

To read the rest of Kakutani's essay, click here.

(above: Thomas Hart Benton, A Social History of the State of Missouri: Huckleberry Finn (detail of north wall), 1936, Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Missouri State Museum.)



Dawn said...


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this, especially the segue to Lucille Clifton.

the other L

Rebel Girl said...

Thanks for reading!

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