Monday, March 21, 2011

Randall Williams, Huck Finn on 60 Minutes

I just watched "60 Minutes." I have always admired Randall Williams, both as an editor and a friend, but never more so than now, as his voice broke acknowledging the "sin"--a powerful, emotional, accurate word--of racism in Southern white people that the Movement helped to confront and thus transformed. But if on the "60 Minutes" interview he'd said the "evil" or the "immorality" or whatever of racism, I'd still have gotten the point.

Words are codes, but there's more than one code, and, as the Buddha said, ultimately a word is just a word. The meaning doesn't hinge on the word, but on the feeling, the awareness, the truth. It's a paradox of writing.

What is it about replacing "nigger" with "slave" in Huck Finn that inspires such absolute chest-beating outrage from the bourgeois lit crowd? I mean, is preserving 219 repetitions of an offensive and violent racist word that central to Twain's meaning? Do these academic critics love the N-word that much? Is it that titillating to them? That's what I wonder.

Suppose the book were translated into French, or Spanish, etc.? And suppose a slightly different connotative epithet were used. Would it make any difference? How many of us know if Homer has ever been translated accurately, or Tolstoy or Camus or for that matter the Bible? Or what about a foreign film where the subtitles or dubs are botched? Is the meaning lost in translation?

Twain was too good a writer to hang everything on what was a kind of slang, and who can say if he deliberately employed massive redundancy or if it simply was of no more concern to him than dozens of other phrasings or word choices, and that, had an editor called him on it, he might have replaced it with "slave" or something else. He was a man of commerce as well as letters.

But no one called him on it. That's not true anymore. Twain's masterpiece isn't at risk for being "sanitized." It is at risk for being banned. There's a difference. Now, because of this ridiculously controversial NewSouth edition (which at a 7,500 print run scarcely threatens the original text or the reading opportunities of adults) teachers who want to teach Huck to kids--or "children"-- in any of the thousands of classrooms where that is not allowed, now can do so. It's a trade-off worth the price of a racial epithet. I'll bet Twain would see it that way. And I'll bet Kindle will, too.