Manny's Reviews > The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
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Nov 21, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: strongly-recommended, well-i-think-its-funny, blame-jordan-if-you-like
Read in January, 1971 , read count: 6

One of my absolute favourite books, which I have read multiple times. A major classic. If at all possible, get an edition with the original illustrations.
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(Expanded review based on conversation with JORDAN)

Here in Switzerland, l'affaire du mot N hasn't quite had the high profile it's received on its home territory. In fact, I'm embarrassed to admit that I hadn't even heard of it until Jordan gave me a few pointers earlier today. So, no doubt all this has been said before, but I still can't resist the temptation to add my two centimes worth.

In case you're as ignorant as I was about hot topics in the literary world, the furore concerns an edition of Huckleberry Finn in which the word 'nigger' has been systematically replaced with 'slave'. My initial response was plain surprise. One of the aspects of the book I enjoy most is Twain's appallingly exact ear for dialogue. He's reproducing the language actually used in the American South of the 1840s, and this, above all, is what gives the novel its force; so why on earth would anyone want to change it? For example, here's Huck's Paw in full flow:
"Oh, yes, this is a wonderful govment, wonderful. Why, looky here. There was a free nigger there from Ohio -- a mulatter, most as white as a white man. He had the whitest shirt on you ever see, too, and the shiniest hat; and there ain't a man in that town that's got as fine clothes as what he had; and he had a gold watch and chain, and a silver-headed cane -- the awfulest old gray-headed nabob in the State. And what do you think? They said he was a p'fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything. And that ain't the wust. They said he could vote when he was at home. Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to? It was 'lection day, and I was just about to go and vote myself if I warn't too drunk to get there; but when they told me there was a State in this country where they'd let that nigger vote, I drawed out. I says I'll never vote agin. Them's the very words I said; they all heard me; and the country may rot for all me -- I'll never vote agin as long as I live. And to see the cool way of that nigger -- why, he wouldn't a give me the road if I hadn't shoved him out o' the way. I says to the people, why ain't this nigger put up at auction and sold? -- that's what I want to know. And what do you reckon they said? Why, they said he couldn't be sold till he'd been in the State six months, and he hadn't been there that long yet. There, now -- that's a specimen. They call that a govment that can't sell a free nigger till he's been in the State six months. Here's a govment that calls itself a govment, and lets on to be a govment, and thinks it is a govment, and yet's got to set stock-still for six whole months before it can take a hold of a prowling, thieving, infernal, white-shirted free nigger.
I'm sorry, but I'm honestly unable to see how anyone could think the above passage was racist or might be improved by substituting 'slave' for 'nigger'. It's incidents like this which create the popular European myth that Americans don't understand the concept of irony.

If you're curious to know more about the tradition of improving great works of literature by removing dubious words, you might want to take a quick look at the Wikipedia article on Thomas Bowdler which Jordan and I were giggling over. Bowdler, it turns out, had acted from the best of motives. When he was young, his father had entertained him by reading aloud from Shakespeare; but
Later, Bowdler realised his father had been extemporaneously omitting or altering passages he felt unsuitable for the ears of his wife and children. Bowdler felt it would be worthwhile to present an edition which might be used in a family whose father was not a sufficiently "circumspect and judicious reader" to accomplish this expurgation himself.
He undertook to create a suitably amended version. Or, to be exact, he got his sister to do it and then gave out the books under his own name. Again, his reasons were unimpeachable: it would have reflected badly on her to admit that she had understood the naughtier passages.

I won't criticise Dr Bowdler or his equally well-meaning modern followers. I just think it's a shame Mark Twain never had the opportunity to write a story about them.
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Comments (showing 1-19 of 19) (19 new)

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message 1: by Gary (new) - added it

Gary Veneration of Mark Twain is one of the roots of our current intellectual stalemate. John Kennedy Toole quote

I have never read Mark Twain but I couldn't resist this.


Manny
Ah come on. That sounds very clever, but what on earth does it mean? What intellectual stalemate? What does having a high opinion of Mark Twain have to do with it?


message 3: by Gary (new) - added it

Gary The joke is that Ignatius lives in his mind in the middle ages and despises all things modern, including it seems Mark Twain. Ignatius is a bit up himself with his opinions. It's a very funny book.

I've never read Mark Twain (possibly A Conneticut Yankee though), but I have now added Huck Finn to my to read list.


Lucy about to tackle this bad boy for a second time thanks to Manny


notgettingenough Vote given despite disagreeing about Americans and irony. As a generalisation it is not unreasonable to say that an ear for the ironic is lacking. Blah blah etc etc. Nothing that hasn't been discussed ad infinitum.


Manny notgettingenough wrote: "Vote given despite disagreeing about Americans and irony. As a generalisation it is not unreasonable to say that an ear for the ironic is lacking. Blah blah etc etc. Nothing that hasn't been discus..."

But isn't this the perfect counterexample? A wonderfully ironic passage by Mark Twain, an American author, met by blank incomprehension from one of his fellow countrymen.

It would be an equally valid generalisation to claim that all Europeans (and Australians, for that matter) believe Americans lack an ability to understand irony...


notgettingenough Manny wrote: "notgettingenough wrote: "Vote given despite disagreeing about Americans and irony. As a generalisation it is not unreasonable to say that an ear for the ironic is lacking. Blah blah etc etc. Nothin..."

It would seem you are using definition 2 below whilst I am using definition 5.

Definition of GENERAL
1
: involving, applicable to, or affecting the whole
2
: involving, relating to, or applicable to every member of a class, kind, or group
3
: not confined by specialization or careful limitation
4
: belonging to the common nature of a group of like individuals : generic
5
a : applicable to or characteristic of the majority of individuals involved : prevalent


message 8: by Trevor (new)

Trevor It is a very long time since I read this wonderful, and often banned, book. I also only read today about the changing of nigger to slave throughout the book - it beggar's belief.

The real irony is that the book is so unequivocally anti-racist and perhaps even more surprisingly anti-religion too. At one point Huck decides he will go to hell rather than return a white man's property (his slave) to its rightful owner - it is a conscious act and a case of basic humanity winning out over what has been portrayed as Christian morality - a society that believed that a white man's property (his slave) is more important than a black man's life. This is such a great book, and the idea that it could be made better by removing the word nigger is so jaw-droppingly stupid it is yet another thing to despair over if I think about it too much.


Manny I know, it does rather make you want to despair. As I said in the review, the worst part is that Dr Gribben genuinely seems to believe he's acting for good and moral reasons, removing an inessential part of the book to make it accessible to a larger audience.


message 10: by Jordan (new) - added it

Jordan Glad I could help with another review.

You forgot about one of the best parts of the Bowdler story.

"The editions were actually edited by Bowdler's sister, Harriet, rather than by Thomas. However, they were published under Thomas Bowdler's name, because a woman could not publicly admit that she understood Shakespeare's racy passages."

Scary thing a smart woman! ; )

Really I think the review has it all. Racism, swear words, censorship and Sexism. One of our best I would say! hehe

So which one of us is Thomas?


Manny I did so mention his sister! And I hope you don't mind me giving out this review under my name. Evidently it wouldn't be fitting for you to admit that you understood the racier passages.


Scribble Orca The like is actually for Jordan, to encourage her exploration of racier passages.


Manny G N wrote: "The like is actually for Jordan, to encourage her exploration of racier passages."

Yes Jordan, you have to start reading more racy stuff! I can lend you my copy of Megan's Mark if you like...


message 14: by notgettingenough (last edited Jan 11, 2011 10:07AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

notgettingenough Mark Twain: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."


message 15: by Jordan (new) - added it

Jordan Manny wrote: "G N wrote: "The like is actually for Jordan, to encourage her exploration of racier passages."

Yes Jordan, you have to start reading more racy stuff! I can lend you my copy of Megan's Mark if you ..."


MMM wait that title sounds familiar. ; P
You have that list of famous racy books I want to read. We should do one of those next!


message 16: by Me (new) - rated it 5 stars

Me ..a shame Mark Twain never had the opportunity to write a story about them."

Oh, how wonderful that would be!

Regarding definition 5 applied to Americans and irony: It does not apply. Some of the most popular television shows in the U.S. are almost nothing *but* irony, yet they have devoted followings, reach cult and classic status passed down to the next generation to enjoy, and their creators are made wealthy by Americans' wallets before they've even gone international.

Gross generalizations about the diverse groups of people making up a large nation are usually off the mark.

In my estimation, the only person who has the right to change any piece of art, and a book is a work of art, is the actual artist him or herself. It is a travesty to impose the sensibilities of others on the creation of an artist.


message 17: by Trevor (new)

Trevor "Gross generalizations about the diverse groups of people making up a large nation are usually off the mark."

And yet some of the 'best minds' in the US (from Fox News to Sam Harris) define the whole of the Islamic world as if it was populated by crazed maniacs. Curious.


message 18: by Me (new) - rated it 5 stars

Me Trevor wrote: ""Gross generalizations about the diverse groups of people making up a large nation are usually off the mark."

And yet some of the 'best minds' in the US (from Fox News to Sam Harris) define the wh..."


The remark about the generalizations, true, which is why they are wrong. That they are some of the "best minds" is laughable and hotly disputed by many Americans. BTW, Rupert Murdoch has been doing plenty of damage in the UK for at least 20 years.


message 19: by Debra (new)

Debra Is John Kennedy Toole worth quoting? I have never heard of him. I do not believe this particular quote holds water.


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