By Scott Simon, NPR Website, January 8, 2011
This week’s announcement by NewSouth Books that it’s publishing a new edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in which a racial slur that begins with the letter N is replaced with the word "slave" stirs up conflicting reactions.
On the one hand, the effrontery—"the vapid, smiley-faced effrontery," as the great Twain biographer, Ron Powers, put it—to replace a word that a genius pointedly used more than 200 times when he wrote the book in 1885 seems a bit like covering the large, gaping wounds shown in Picasso’s Guernica with Band-Aids.
But there are already scores of editions in print in which the N-word appears. And every year, it seems that some school district somewhere refuses to read Huckleberry Finn because of it. Dr. Allen Gribben, the Auburn University Twain scholar who has edited this new version, says he just doesn't want one word to keep students from reading a great book.
Mark Twain wrote conflicts into Huck Finn’s soul. Huck was a river kid of the 1830’s who ran away from so-called "sivilized" life with his guardian, Miss Watson. He throws in with Jim, a slave who has escaped Miss Watson, and is trying to get to freedom. Huck and Jim run, rob, and scrounge together to survive. Jim refuses to run off when the going gets tough, and Huck refuses to betray Jim for a reward, even though his "conscience" reminds him that under the law, Jim is stolen goods.
"All right then," Huck screams at himself, "I’ll go to hell!"
As Mark Twain wrote in his lecture notes, "a sound heart is a surer guide than an ill-trained conscience."
Mr. Simon gets to the heart of the matter by illustrating the heart of Huck as both loyal and beyond 'race' in his refusal to betray his black buddy, knowing the legal implications.
It is the ill-trained conscience manifest by the politically correct movement (and it has become a movement) of those seeking to purify not only language but also attitudes and perceptions of all of their deep and profound complexity, especially a complexity made more rich and powerful seen through the lens of time seeks to impact.
Such politically correct initiatives show their face in churches, when smiling faces whisper before a liturgy about the "new" face that just wandered in, clad in less than 'Sunday best' clothes, or the whisper in the church hall after the service about the young girl who was absent from the service 'because I heard she was in the 'family way' "but she is certainly not married, and you know, she is only sixteen!"
There is a quality of superficiality and therefore merely mask of perfection that people want to wear in front of their peers, and that superficiality knows no gender or race or social class, although the elite have mastered more of the deceptions to preserve it intact than the poor.
In fact, the poor find such pretensions unmistakeable, and know them for what they truly are: a mere cover-up for both sins of omission and for sins of commission that are sprinkled through the lifetimes of all human beings.
I recently found a poem by a Canadian poet, a Toronto poet of the mid-twentieth century. The poet's name is Raymond Souster, and the poem is titled,
The Bourgeois Child
I might have been a slum child,
I might have learned to swear and steal,
I might have learned to drink and whore.
But I was raised a good bourgeois child
And so it has taken me a little longer.
Huck and Jim were not bouregois kids. They learned to swear and steal to survive. They might have learned to drink and whore, in their youth, as those children not of the bourgeois do, as Souster says. Unfortunately, those of us who are bourgeois because we were raised 'respectable' took sometimes a little and sometimes a lot longer to become real, to mature, to put our feet on the dirt of the ground that is our life.
And the politically correct movement is part of the burgeoning bourgeois culture that infects much of the world, especially of the western world.
It does not like swearing and stealing; it does not like drinking and whoreing; it does not like the face and the reality of homelessness, nor the face and the reality of drunken bums living under the concrete abuttments of highway bridges, in cardboard boxes; it does not like the face and the reality of the literally hundreds of rapes on the streets of Haiti, by the roaming gangs of hungry men, and while the bourgeois class wrings its hands, it often turns its face away, because the pain is too biting.
Nevertheless, by turning away, we do nothing to stop those ravenous rapes. We do not confront those raging perpetrators! We do not protect those victim young girls and young women because we would rather not fully listen and fully grasp the depth of the ugliness.
And we think or perhaps even believe that we are participating in the training of young consciences, when, in fact, we are deadening young hearts.
Even late, I welcome an alive (and sound) heart, and reject an ill-trained conscience, in the pursuit of truth, from Huck and from Simon, and from Picasso and from Souster.