My knee-jerk reaction when I heard about the Huck Finn farrago was that it was political correctness run wild, and a pointlessly belated attempt to sanitise a text for contemporary readers, particularly schoolchildren. Maybe there’s an element of that, but the fact is that while ‘slave’ is a more acceptable word than ‘nigger’ today, it’s equally abhorrent as a concept. Changing a word is one thing, but the tragedy of HUCKLEBERRY FINN is the subjugation of men and women on the basis of their skin colour, not the language used to describe that subjugation.
Besides, and with all due respect to NewSouth, the new version is only one version; anyone who desperately needs to get their fix of the printed word ‘nigger’ won’t have to go too far to find it.
One thing that did slightly jar with me was the insistence that the new version is intended for schoolchildren, who are no longer reading HUCKLEBERRY FINN, given the potential for embarrassment in the classroom. It’s a long time since I’ve read either book, but I always thought that TOM SAWYER was a kids’ book in which Huck Finn appears, whereas HUCKLEBERRY FINN was a more serious novel, intended for adults.
THE NIGGER OF THE NARCISSUS is definitely a novel for adults, and one I feel a little more protective of, because I love Joseph Conrad’s novels. Should it be renamed, and so clumsily? Quoth Professor Ruben Alvarado, who provides the version’s introduction:
“THE N-WORD OF THE NARCISSUS tells the tale of a fateful voyage of a British sailing ship, and on that voyage the ability of a lone black man to take the crew hostage. The ability of this man to manipulate an entire ship’s crew can no longer be seen as a mere exercise in storytelling. Conrad in fact appears to have been the first to highlight the phenomenon of manipulation based in white guilt.”Professor Alvarado claims that the title of the novel (novella, really) put him off reading it for many years, and that the inclusion of ‘N-Word’ in the title is an attempt to provide a text that will allow readers to appreciate Conrad’s theme of slavery, subjugation and white guilt. In other words, that it’s a version of white guilt that led to the changing of the title of a novel which trades in white guilt. Which seems to me a tad perverse, not least because the use of the word ‘nigger’ in the title is, in contemporary parlance, something of a grabber, but also because the word ‘nigger’ has been comprehensively reclaimed and subverted by those it was intended to denigrate in the first place, as Sean O’Driscoll’s fine piece in the Irish Times points out.
The estate of Samuel Beckett aside, few texts are sacred these days, and to be perfectly honest, I’m much more outraged by the raft of Jane Austen zombie novels and their ilk than the changing of a few words in HUCKLEBERRY FINN. That novel is important for Mark Twain’s savage satire on slavery and racism, not for the language used to describe it. Arguing that texts must retain their original language for its own sake is something of a blind alley, in which lurks Agatha Christie’s facetiously insulting title, TEN LITTLE NIGGERS. Is it a good thing that Christie’s novel was retitled AND THEN THERE WERE NONE to reflect the fact that schoolchildren are no longer unthinkingly taught nursery rhymes featuring the word ‘nigger’? I’d argue yes.