I need a show of hands.

How many of you were outraged to learn that Alan Gribben, professor of English at Auburn-Montgomery, has edited an edition of Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, due out next month from NewSouth Books, that substitutes the word “slave” for the word “nigger”?

This event sure has generated a lot of heat. The New York Times editorial board doesn’t mince words about this act of word mincing: “We are horrified, and we think most readers, textual purists or not, will be horrified too.” The newspaper called on eleven public figures to “debate” the issue online, with readers invited to chime in, opine, fulminate, and dither below.

Who knew the nation had such a passion for Twain, authorial authenticity, editorial practices, American literature, teaching?

*

Back in 1997, David Gergen, then of the PBS News Hour, had Shelley Fisher Fiskin, professor of American Studies at the University of Texas-Austin, on to talk about the legacy of Mark Twain. In the online forum that followed, a listener wrote in with this hypothetical: how would she feel about removing the word “nigger” from Huck Finn and replacing it with “negro”? Fisher Fiskin, author of Was Huck Black: Twain and African-American Voices, argued strongly against such a substitution:

The basic irony Twain addressed is, sadly, still too much with us: How can a society that considers itself “civilized” continue to deny the humanity of large numbers of people in it? Fiction can grab us by the throat and thrust our nose into foulness so deep the smell is suffocating. The tempers that Twain continues to rile are testimony to the power of his art–and to its ability to force us to engage the important issues it puts on the table.

My initial reaction to this is to argue that “irony” is the wrong word to use to describe the situation where those who lay claim to being civilized deny the humanity of other members of their society. But that response takes a back seat when I hit that second sentence: Yikes! It’s not just that the image breaks down–try to picture the grabbing and thrusting and our collective nose and see how far you get–it’s that the description of fiction as applied to Twain couldn’t be further from the truth. Does Huck Finn smash your face “into foulness so deep the smell is suffocating”?

Uh, no.

I submit that, if that’s how the novel worked, few would have read it when it came out and virtually no one would read it now. Literature doesn’t work by the old face smash into the pavement of death; didactic stories do, however.

*

As chance would have it, this I’ve been reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin for the first time. Yes, that’s a big hole in the old reading background. (If you enjoy such disclosures, I recommend David Lodge’s parlor game, “Humiliation,” where guests take turns revealing major works they’ve not read.) Stowe’s classic occupies a unique place in American letters: it is a novel that did, in fact, “force” its readers to contend with truths they preferred to look away from.

Or that, at any rate, is the usual take on it, largely as the result of the claim that Lincoln greeted Stowe during a visit to D.C. with the words, “So, you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!” Daniel Vollaro provides extensive evidence that casts doubt over whether this much cited statement was ever uttered by the President, noting that, despite the apocryphal character of this storied meeting, “[f]or reasons that should be obvious, Stowe scholars have been more consistently interested in the Lincoln-Stowe connection than Lincoln scholars.”

*

Should we take the word “nigger” out of Uncle Tom’s Cabin?

We’ve barely turned the first page before it makes the first of hundreds of appearances in the novel.

In the opening scene, Mr. Shelby, a slave owner fallen on hard times, is meeting with Haley, a slave trader who has surveyed his stock and is ready to deal. Shelby describes Uncle Tom, who serves the role of foreman on his farm, as “an uncommon fellow,” “steady, honest, capable, manage[s the] whole farm like a clock.” Haley’s response?

“You mean honest, as niggers go.”

Mr. Shelby persists: “Tom is a steady, sensible, pious fellow.”

Haley’s response?

“Some folks don’t believe there is pious niggers Shelby….”

Haley qualifies this response. He believes there are pious slaves because this increases the value of the commodity he trades:

“Yes, I consider religion a valeyable thing in a nigger, when it’s the genuine article, and no mistake.”

And so it goes: the slave owner sees Tom as a “fellow,” the slave trader sees him as a “nigger.”

*

Isn’t this a distinction without a difference?

After all, Shelby may speak of Tom as a “fellow,” but he doesn’t see him as a fellow human being: Tom is a commodity that Shelby owns and one that he sells–sells away from his wife, just as he sells Eliza and her son away from her husband.

In our tone-deaf times, Shelby doubtless would be designated “politically correct,” a term that has come to mean, among other things, hewing to an empty, self-righteous fastidiousness about language. (That the phrase has come to mean this is itself worth writing about, but that is not our charge today.)

For Stowe, however, this is not an insignificant difference. She means to signal by the use of the word “nigger” a fundamental difference between the benevolent slave owner and the slave trader: the one who doesn’t use the word may be convinced that the institution of slavey must be brought to an end; the one who does use it cannot be convinced by means of argument or by stories about the horrors of slavery.

*

Eliza takes her son and makes a run for Canada. Uncle Tom, thinking of the consequences for his fellow slaves, stays where he is, is put in chains by Haley, is collected together with Haley’s other purchases and put on a ferry bound for New Orleans. During the voyage down the Mississippi, Haley disembarks and purchases a mother and small child. And then, when the mother rises to scan the docks in Louisville in hopes of seeing her husband, who has been sold separately, her child is taken ashore by her new owner without her knowledge. When the mother returns, Haley is waiting for her and addresses her by name:

“Lucy,” said the trader, “your child’s gone; you may as well know it first as last. You see, I know’d you couldn’t take him down south; and I got a chance to sell him to a first-rate family, that’ll raise him better than you can.”

Who is it who sees this situation aright? Surely, Stowe’s extraordinary accomplishment in this sentimental, rhetorical masterpiece rests in her having Uncle Tom see what the slave owners and the slave traders can’t see:

Tom had watched the whole transaction from first to last, and had a perfect understanding of its results. To him, it looked like something unutterably horrible and cruel, because, poor, ignorant black soul! he had not learned to generalize, and to take enlarged views. If he had only been instructed by certain ministers of Christianity, he might have thought better of it, and seen in it an every-day incident of a lawful trade; a trade which is the vital support of an institution which an American divine tells us has “no evils but such as are inseparable from any other relations in social and domestic life.” But Tom, as we see, being a poor, ignorant fellow, whose reading had been confined entirely to the New Testament, could not comfort and solace himself with views like these. His very soul bled within him for what seemed to him the wrongs of the poor suffering thing that lay like a crushed reed on the boxes; the feeling, living, bleeding, yet immortal thing, which American state law coolly classes with the bundles, and bales, and boxes, among which she is lying.

Subtlety is not the goal here. No Christian, as Stowe saw it, could support slavery; arguments that worked in general would crumble in the face of specific instances of indefensible cruelty. Uncle Tom, who Stowe insists has a soul, looks on Lucy, “a feeling, living, bleeding, yet immortal thing,” and sees what the law of the land can’t see: she is suffering.

*

Tom tries to comfort Lucy with words about “a heart of love in the skies, of a pitying Jesus, and an eternal home; but the ear was deaf with anguish, and the palsied heart could not feel.” This is how sentimental literature works: it pulls on the heart strings. Imagine turning around and finding your child gone!

Unimaginable now: popular contemporary narratives are inevitably about recoverable losses. In Taken, Liam Neeson’s daughter is grabbed at the airport by sex traffickers and ninety minutes of bone-crushing action later virtually all of Europe has had its ass whipped in the service of the happy reunion of father and daughter.

Tom tries to comfort Lucy, but she doesn’t respond. At midnight, he is awoken by a figure moving past him and the sound of a splash. Tom rises and looks for Lucy in vain:

The poor bleeding heart was still, at last, and the river rippled and dimpled just as brightly as if it had not closed above it.

And the slave trader? How does he receive the news? As the one wronged, of course. He records Lucy’s disappearance as a loss in his ledger and curses his own fate.

To drive her point home, Stowe breaks from the narrative to let us listen in on the imagined responses of her readers:

“He’s a shocking creature, isn’t he,—this trader? so unfeeling! It’s dreadful, really!”

“O, but nobody thinks anything of these traders! They are universally despised,—never received into any decent society.”

Stowe rattles the cage; she shakes her fist; she says, just because you don’t use the word “nigger” doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. She raises the hammer high and drives the point home:

Who is most to blame? The enlightened, cultivated, intelligent man, who supports the system of which the trader is the inevitable result, or the poor trader himself? You make the public statement that calls for his trade, that debauches and depraves him, till he feels no shame in it; and in what are you better than he?

So, scrub your Huck Finn and feel better about yourself. Or declaim the effort to scrub Huck Finn and feel better about yourself. In the discursive world Stowe has created, both responses are acts of self-deception. It’s not about word choice; it’s about action.

*

In 1853, a year after Uncle Tom’s Cabin was first published, Rev. E. J. Stearns published his version of the definitive refutation: Notes on Uncle Tom’s Cabin Being a Logical Answer to Its Allegations and Inferences Against Slavery as an Institution. It’s an eye-openning read. Rev. Stearns begins by describing the spread of Stowe’s vision a year after its publication: 100K copies in circulation in the US; 150K copies in circulation in Great Britain; a version for children in the works; stage versions opening across Europe. How to put a stop to the spread of Stowe’s lies about slavery?

Rev. Stearns pens a 200+ page point-by-point refutation of Stowe’s representation of the evils of slavery. How does he explain the popularity of a work that is so fundamentally flawed?

But in what does its life reside? Not in its plot, for it has none; probably for the same reason Coleridge gave for women having no souls: it is itself a plot–a plot against the peace of society.

And so it goes for two-hundred pages, an eye-peeling defense of slavery, with citations from the Old Testament at every turn, and the repeated refrain throughout–the slaves would be much worse off free than ninety-nine out of a hundred are under their benevolent masters. One passage serves to illustrate the whole. Stowe fails to understand the rationale for whipping adult slaves. The Rev. Stearns patiently explains:

What the poet says of men in general is literally true of the slaves of the South–they are but children of a larger growth, with all of the faults and many of the excellencies of childhood, and requiring a similar discipline. To attempt to govern them as you would whites is absurd; and yet even whites cannot be controlled without the lash.

For the record, the word “nigger” appears only nine times in Rev. Stearns’ magisterial defense of slavery: each time, he is citing from Stowe.

And who is this Rev. Stearn, who spends so much time countering Stowe’s representation of slavery as an insupportable horror?

Turns out he’s a past professor at St. John’s College, Annapolis, MD–my alma mater.

*

Last week, the Trustees of Emory University met and approved, by consensus, the following resolution:

Emory acknowledges its entwinement with the institution of slavery throughout the College’s early history. Emory regrets both this undeniable wrong and the University’s decades of delay in acknowledging slavery’s harmful legacy. As Emory University looks forward, it seeks the wisdom always to discern what is right and the courage to abide by its mission of using knowledge to serve humanity.

We could quibble over the word “entwinement.” Or we could acknowledge that this particular word serves the pragmatic function of acknowledging that all moral decisions are the result of an alchemical mix of circumstance and conviction. There’s no such fudging and stumbling in the second sentence: wisdom, courage and knowledge, all arrayed in the service of what is right in order to serve humanity.

*

The illiterate focuses on a single word in isolation. Meaning is made in context. Change a key word, change the context, change the meaning, change the past.

Arguments about eliminating single words are arguments in favor of language without meaning, nuance, ambiguity.

Is the central horror of Huck Finn eliminated if Huck and Tom don’t refer to Jim as a nigger?

Quick: what is the central horror of the story?

Drawing a blank?

That’s OK. If you haven’t read it recently, you’re likely to think that the horror is restricted to the realm we control–word choice, dialect, representation. Beyond the use of the word “nigger,” Huck Finn may just hover at the edge of memory as the story of a boy on a river.

Truth is, though, that the horror is this: what seems, at first read, to be a light-hearted romp down the river featuring Huck, his buddy Tom Sawyer, and Jim, the escaped slave, is revealed at the last moment by Twain to have been a chilling record of cruelty.  That is, as Huck Finn comes to a close, it turns out that, while Jim has believed himself to be an escaped slave at risk of being recaptured or killed throughout their travels, Tom has known all along that Jim had been freed at his master’s death. Tom, in other words, keeps Jim ignorant because it’s amusing to him to do so.

To understand the cruelty of Tom’s actions, though, you’d actually have to read Huck Finn.

*

Oh yeah, not that it matters to those ramping up to be outraged by the NewSouth project, but in the 2.0 world, the print run of 7,500 copies of the polite version of Huck Finn is utterly inconsequential, practically. Why?

Uh, because the unedited version is openly available at a number of sites on the web–for free. Project Gutenberg, for example, has it in five different downloadable forms here; the University of Virginia offers its version here;  even SparksNotes provides a complete version here.

____________________

“That’s Not Twain,” the NYT editorial, may be found here.

The News Hour link may be found here.

Vollaro’s excellent piece may be found here.

The “Show of Hands” image is by Jesse Kuhn of rawtoastdesign.com

The complete Uncle Tom’s Cabin may be found here.

Rev. Stearns work may be found here.

Emory’s announcement may be found here.

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January 16, 2011

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