Rewriting Huckleberry Finn: Some Random Thoughts

Yesterday, as I read online comments about a news item that a publisher plans on removing The Enn Word from Mark Twain classics, a few thoughts occurred to me (some vaguely devil’s advocate-y):

* We’re talking about ONE publisher’s edition of a public domain work (and a small publisher, at that). It doesn’t make the many many (many) other editions of the book that already exist cease to exist. Do we know how large the edition will be (UPDATE: 7,500 first edition according to Publisher’s Weekly)? Isn’t this sort of a drop-in-the-bucket type of scenario?

* Twain’s work has been edited, rewritten, and watered down countless times already: Excerpted for ‘young adult reader’ collections, adapted for television, reworked for film, condensed for easier consumption. I don’t see this as being very different, as long as it is being presented honestly.

* Many are assuming this edition is going to somehow try and FOOL readers into thinking it’s the original (insert Orwell/1984 references), but the book hasn’t even been released yet, so that’s just a bit of speculation. What if there is a disclaimer at the beginning of the book warning of the edits? I have editions of Twain books with introductory disclaimers along the lines of “written in the nineteenth century and carries language and attitudes that are typical of its time”? Does that distancing of the publishers from the author’s words alter the reader’s perception of the work?

* It seems to me the existence of the edited/censored book itself isn’t bad, it’s how it will be presented to the reader. Will there be a blurb on the cover? Back cover? Preface? If it is sold to school systems, how will the teachers present it?

* How many people who are indignantly upset about this enjoyed Pride & Prejudice & Zombies? If so, then you have already partaken in the wondrous bounty of Public Domain Fucking Around. If not, then get used to feeling all riled up, because over the next few decades, you’re going to find yourself getting angry over and over again as more and more classic titles are…well, fucked with. But never fear! Public Domain Fucking Around works both ways! You are free to publish your OWN version of Huck Finn with four hundred instances of the word “nigger”! Exciting time to be alive, eh?

* A ‘clean’ version of any work will be seen by an audience that would not normally be exposed to it. A portion of those people will sooner or later seek out the original. A portion, without a doubt, will wrongly believe they have read the original. I still see this as a net gain for literature and culture.

* To my knowledge, this entire going-viral story is based solely off of a press release issued by the publisher. We are taking part in a marketing/promotional campaign simply by talking about it. So congratulations to all who choose to shake their fists angrily. They’re probably going to print a larger edition now.

Censorship is a real danger, no doubt. It should be fought against, yep. But in this instance we are talking about a piece of literature that has been widely disseminated around the world since 1884. Is there a danger of the edited version someday being confused with the original? Yeah, possibly, waaaay down the line, when the off-world colonies are our only hope. But I don’t see this is as an issue of race or censorship or rewriting history. I see a larger issue of a digital culture and how it chooses to handle or mishandle classic works that are no longer protected by copyright. Public Domain is an awesome concept, but along with the good there’s going to be some bad (this example should probably be counted in the ‘some bad’ column). How are we, as a culture, going to deal with the integrity of the written word in an era of digital dissemination, excerpting and condensing, cutting and pasting, mashing up, and cheap printing?

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