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Kenneth C. Davis Headshot

The Real N-Word Is "Nonsense"

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"A work that aspires, however, humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line."

The great novelist Joseph Conrad wrote those words in a literary manifesto called "A Preface to the Nigger of the 'Narcissus.' "

Oops, I mean "Slave of the 'Narcissus.'" Or should it be "The Children of the Sea," the title used by Conrad's first American publisher in 1897? Or perhaps I should call it the nearly unspeakable "N-word of the Narcissus," the title chosen by WordBridge, publisher of a 2009 bowdlerized< version of Conrad's novel?

This question arises over the decision to publish a "sanitized" version of the great American classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in an edition which purges the use of the word "nigger" (as well as "injun"). The edition, forthcoming from NewSouth Books, replaces more than 200 uses of the word "nigger" with "slave" in Mark Twain's original text and substitutes "Indian" for "injun.".

This, I believe, is the real N-word: Nonsense.

NewSouth Books asserts that these epithets are "hurtful" and prevent some teachers from assigning the book.

It's true. Some readers, along with educators and parents, have been offended by the use of a word that makes people uncomfortable -- with good reason.

News flash: Art is supposed to make us uncomfortable.

The controversy behind the decision to -- in my opinion -- deface a signature piece of American culture has been well-covered in the media and addressed by many, including New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani as well as the Times' editorial page.

As someone who cares deeply about American History and Literature, I would like to add my voice to those who find this expurgated version of Huckleberry Finn a shameful act of cultural destruction in the guise of political correctness. While it falls far short of the Taliban blowing up ancient Buddhas, it is a lot worse than draping the bare breasts of two female "Liberty" statues at the Justice Dept. during John Ashcroft's days as Attorney General.

We are not talking about painting lawn jockeys white, but altering the intent and meaning of one of America's cultural touchstones. And in so doing, missing Mark Twain's central point. It's a bit like complaining that Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" is cruel to Irish babies.

This is what I and others call a "teachable moment."

Teachers should assign Mark Twain's Huck Finn, read it together with their students and talk about what the book means. And most important, what Mark Twain meant. Acknowledge that this word is hateful and hurtful. But get students to think for themselves. That, after all, that is a teacher's most important job.

And maybe, while teachers are at it, get their students to read Randall Kennedy's excellent book, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. (Pantheon, 2002). In it, Kennedy writes of Huck Finn:

Twain is not willfully buttressing racism here; he is seeking ruthlessly to unveil and ridicule it. By putting nigger in white characters' mouths, the author is not branding blacks, but rather branding the whites... Huckleberry Finn is the best fictive example of Twain's triumph over his upbringing. In it, he creates a loving relationship between Huck and Jim, the runaway slave, all the while sardonically impugning the pretensions of white racial superiority.

Joseph Conrad, whose work was also sanitized for an American audience, also wrote in that essay:

And art itself may be defined as a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect... If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm-all you demand-and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.

Providing that glimpse of truth is what Huck, Jim and Mark Twain were able to do. The justification is found not only in every line, but every word. Even the "hurtful" ones.