Mark Twain's "nigger"

The cowardice of removing the n-word from Huckleberry Finn.

If ever there was need to demonstrate the willingness of some Americans to downplay their country's undeniably racist history, this latest act of cultural revisionism should suffice. Fearing "pre-emptive censorship" at the hands of readers deemed too sensitive to make "textual encounters with this racial appellative", the Mark Twain scholar Alan Gribben has put together a new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that replaces the word "nigger" with the supposedly less "demeaning" term "slave". Its publisher, NewSouth Books, has uploaded on its site an excerpt from Gribben's introduction, in which he explains: "We may applaud Twain's ability as a prominent American literary realist to record the speech of a particular region during a specific historical era, but abusive racial insults that bear distinct connotations of permanent inferiority nonetheless repulse modern-day readers."

That this repulsion -- blind to context or artistic validity -- is indicative of the US's still unresolved attitudes to race should not be lost to Gribben, who, for 40 years, has "led college classes, bookstore forums and library reading groups in detailed discussions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn". He recounts how students and audience members "seemed to prefer" his expurgated readings of Twain's work to the originals: "I could detect a visible sense of relief . . . as though a nagging problem with the text had been addressed." Yet surely the problem is not "with the text" but with the uncomfortable realities that the text cannot help but bring to the surface. If, as Gribben states, "the n-word remains inarguably the most inflammatory word in the English language", it demands to be asked why that is the case. Making it easier for readers to skirt the issue can only be a bad thing.

In his defence, Gribben cites the Harlem renaissance writer Langston Hughes and his 1940 plea for omitting the "incendiary word" from all literature. "Ironically or seriously, of necessity for the sake of realism, or impishly for the sake of comedy, it doesn't matter . . . [African Americans] do not like it in any book or play whatsoever, be the book or play ever so sympathetic." Yet it is disingenuous of Gribben to take Hughes so literally on this point, especially since Hughes's own well-known poem "Ku Klux" uses the word to devastating effect:

A Klansman said, "Nigger,
Look me in the face --
And tell me you believe in
The great white race."

In his memoir, The Big Sea, Hughes wrote: "The word nigger, you see, sums up for us who are colored all the bitter years of insult and struggle in America." By erasing it from Huck Finn, Gribben isn't erasing "insult and struggle" from the soul of America so much as papering over the cracks. To obscure the word "nigger" by euphemism, the Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy once argued, is to "flinch from coming to grips with racial prejudice":

Given the power of "nigger" to wound, it is important to provide a context within which presentation of that term can be properly understood. It is also imperative, however, to permit present and future readers to see for themselves directly the full gamut of American cultural productions, the ugly as well as the beautiful, those that mirror the majestic features of American democracy and those that mirror America's most depressing failings.

In Huck Finn's speech, Twain himself was subverting the traditional racial categories of "white" and "black" -- something that other writers (including Shelley Fisher Fishkin, author of Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African American Voices) have explored in more depth than I can go into here. The character and book are inclusive of high life and low life, north and south, "sivilisation" and the "territories". It is this spirit of barrier-breaking inclusivity that marks out the work as distinctively American.

It boggles the mind that Gribben, an academic so clearly passionate about Twain and his achievements, should be willing to pander to the kind of readers who would unthinkingly allow his masterpiece to become the fifth most banned book of the 1990s. It would be a shame if schools in the US ever adopt his version into their curriculums.

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

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That's the Way It Crumbles: Matthew Engel explores Americanisms

The author is especially vexed by the barbarous locution “wake-up call”.

Perhaps, with the ascension of Ruth Davidson to political superstardom and the glorification of Sir Walter Scott on current Scottish banknotes (south of the border, we’re going for Jane Austen on our tenners), we will all revisit Ivanhoe. The story, you’ll recall, is set during the reign of the Lionheart King, who is away on crusade business, killing Muslims by the thousand. Like the good Christian monarch he is.

Scott’s narrative has a prelude. A Saxon swineherd, Gurth, is sitting on a decayed Druid stone as his pigs root in the dirt. Along comes his mate Wamba, a jester. The two serfs chat. How is it, Gurth wonders, that “swine” when it reaches the high tables of their masters is “pork” (Fr porc); cow ­becomes “beef” (Fr boeuf); and sheep turns into “mutton” (Fr mouton)?

The reason, Wamba explains (no fool he), is 1066. Four generations have passed but the Normans are still running things. They have normanised English – and they eat high on the hog. How did pig become pork? In the same way as “minced beef sandwich”, in my day, became Big Mac.

Ivanhoe should be the Brexiteers’ bible. Its message is that throwing off the Norman Yoke is necessary before Britain can be Britain again. What’s the difference between Normandy and Europa? Just 900 or so years. Scott makes a larger point. Common language, closely examined, reflects where real power lies. More than that, it enforces that power – softly but subversively, often in ways we don’t notice. That’s what makes it dangerous.

We’ve thrown off the Norman Yoke – but it remains, faintly throbbing, in the archaeology of our language. Why do we call the place “parliament” and not “speak house”? Is Gordon Ramsay a chef or a cook? Do the words evoke different kinds of society?

Matthew Engel is a journalist at the end of four decades of deadline-driven, high-quality writing. He is now at that stage of life when one thinks about it all – in his case, the millions of words he has tapped out. What historical meaning was ingrained in those words? It is, he concludes, not the European Union but America that we should be fearful of.

The first half of his book is a survey of the historical ebbs and flows of national dialect across the Atlantic. In the 18th century the linguistic tide flowed west from the UK to the US. When the 20th century turned, it was the age of “Mid-Atlantic”. Now, it’s all one-way. We talk, think and probably dream American. It’s semantic colonialism. The blurb (manifestly written by Engel himself) makes the point succinctly:

Are we tired of being asked to take the elevator, sick of being offered fries and told about the latest movie? Yeah. Have we noticed the sly interpolation of Americanisms into our everyday speech? It’s a no-brainer.

One of the charms of this book is Engel hunting down his prey like a linguistic witchfinder-general. He is especially vexed by the barbarous locution “wake-up call”. The first use he finds is “in an ice hockey ­report in the New York Times in 1975”. Horribile dictu. “By the first four years of the 21st century the Guardian was reporting wake-up calls – some real, most metaphorical – two and a half times a week.” The Guardian! What more proof were needed that there is something rotten in the state of the English language?

Another bee in Engel’s bonnet is the compound “from the get-go”. He tracks it down to a 1958 Hank Mobley tune called “Git-Go Blues”. And where is that putrid locution now? Michael Gove, then Britain’s education secretary, used it in a 2010 interview on Radio 4. Unclean! Unclean!

Having completed his historical survey, and compiled a voluminous dictionary of Americanisms, Engel gets down to business. What does (Americanism alert!) the takeover mean?

Is it simply that we are scooping up loan words, as the English language always has done? We love Babel; revel in it. Ponder a recent headline in the online Independent: “Has Scandi-noir become too hygge for its own good?” The wonderful thing about the English language is its sponge-like ability to absorb, use and discard un-English verbiage and still be vitally itself. Or is this Americanisation what Orwell describes in Nineteen Eighty-Four as “Newspeak”? Totalitarian powers routinely control independent thinking – and resistance to their power – by programmatic impoverishment of language. Engel has come round to believing the latter. Big time.

In its last pages, the book gets mad as hell on the subject. Forget Europe. Britain, and young Britain in particular, has handed over “control of its culture and vocabulary to Washington, New York and Los Angeles”. It is, Engel argues, “self-imposed serfdom”:

A country that outsources the development of its language – the language it developed over hundreds of years – is a nation that has lost the will to live.

Britain in 2017AD is, to borrow an Americanism, “brainwashed”, and doesn’t know it or, worse, doesn’t care. How was American slavery enforced? Not only with the whip and chain but by taking away the slaves’ native language. It works.

Recall the front-page headlines of 9 June. “Theresa on ropes”, shouted the Daily Mail. She was “hung out to dry”, said the London Evening Standard. “Stormin’ Corbyn”, proclaimed the Metro. These are manifest Americanisms, from the metaphor “hanging out to dry” to the use of “Stormin’” – the epithet applied to Norman Schwarzkopf, the victorious US Gulf War commander of Operation Desert Storm.

These headlines on Theresa May’s failure fit the bill. Her campaign was framed, by others, as American presidential, not English prime ministerial. But the lady herself is pure Jane Austen: a vicar’s daughter whose naughtiest act was to run through a field of wheat. She simply couldn’t do the “hail to the chief” stuff. Boris, the bookies’ odds predict, will show her how that presidential “stuff” should be “strut”. He was, of course, born American.

Engel’s book, short-tempered but consistently witty, does a useful thing. It makes us listen to what is coming out of our mouths and think seriously about it. Have a nice day.

John Sutherland’s “How Good Is Your Grammar?” is published by Short Books

That’s the Way It Crumbles: the American Conquest of English
Matthew Engel
Profile Books, 279pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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