Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The weird thing about the recent Huckleberry Finn "controversy"

The words "Huckleberry Finn" have been trending on Twitter all day. Evidently some dubious press of which neither you nor I has ever heard is putting out an edition in which the word "nigger" is replaced by the word "slave."

This is not really newsworthy. It wouldn't be The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn if someone weren't trying to censor it--I believe Myra Jehlen wrote an essay on this very subject. That the press doing the censoring is so very, very marginal speaks to how utterly canonical the novel--and its quasi-iconoclasm--has become.

What's interesting to me is the way the news is being received on Twitter. Most of what I've seen is plain outrage. How could they etc. My impression is that most people don't realize the following:

1. There are multiple editions of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, put out by different presses and different editors, among which readers are free to choose, and also the first edition is in the public domain and widely available for free.

2. The press that is putting out this edition is negligible, not least because the only thing of note that it has ever done is put out a bad edition of Huckleberry Finn.

3. Huckleberry Finn is not a franchise like Dora the Explorer. There is no single corporation that can or will control its image or content. You can't "update" Huckleberry Finn the way you can "update" Nancy Drew or Strawberry Shortcake or the aforementioned Dora.

It's the last point that's the most striking to me. It gives us tweets like these:
"They're really changing Huckleberry Finn? America lost their common sense"

"Huckleberry Finn is eliminating the "N" word from new editions to be less offensive. Also, Moby Dick will now be called Moby Penis."

"New editions of Huckleberry Finn will be censored to remove the "n" word? #fuckyourpoliticalcorrectness #apparentlyfuckclassicliterature"

Huckleberry Finn becomes a unified brand, like Coca-Cola. It's as though we cannot imagine an art work that is not first and foremost corporate intellectual property. It suggests that those of us whose job it is to know about publishing, intellectual property, textual editing, and so-called classics (a word that I've seen thrown around a lot regarding this most recent of HF controversies) haven't done enough to get the word out to those whose job it isn't, but who would benefit from knowing. It would be worth tipping people off that, yes, bad editions exist, and so do good ones. Sometimes it takes a little investigation to tell the difference.

The truth is that the academic humanities has often relied on the publishing industry to do its public outreach. Sometimes that works out, but not in this case. It's not in trade publishers' interests to get people to care about textual editing, because critical editions are almost by definition not what they sell. (How much does Viking care about the Schulman edition of Marianne Moore's poems? Not very much, because it's still in print.)

Cheap reprints of public domain works--like the Higginson editions of Dickinson's poems, of which I remember receiving a pretty hardcover edition from an aunt one Christmas--have long been a boon for publishers wanting to exploit the cultural capital of "classics." The most recent version of this is the fact that you can read Project Gutenberg editions for free on the Kindle. Which is true enough, but there are some situations in which the Gutenberg edition is fine and others in which it's a dreadful idea. This has always been true; it's just more obvious when it comes to removing the word "nigger" from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And in fact it wouldn't be a controversy if it weren't news that texts are always mediated, that multiple editions of a work can coexist, and that a novel isn't always the same thing as a franchise.

I've heard it lamented that, since Wikipedia reached its effective saturation point, it's no longer possible to assign the salutary "write a Wikipedia article" project. Perhaps the next step is to get our students to go to existing Wikipedia articles for particular works and add summaries of the major textual issues.

Somewhere, Roland Barthes is having a big laugh. But then, I guess that's always true.


Sayantani said...

fabulous, smart post! Just came here from Phil Nel's site. Huck Finn is not Coca-Cola - classic! I agree Barthes is having a good chuckle... (my own recent rant: http://storiesaregoodmedicine.blogspot.com/2011/01/huckleberry-schmuckleberry-race-and.html)

Ashbags said...

People always over-react. But at least gives you something interesting to blog about!