HUCKLEBERRY FINN and Literary Alteration

What is it about the New South edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that has so captured the public’s ire? Great works of literature are being altered and transformed everyday — and yet something about this alteration feels different.

I am not interested in commenting directly on the Huck Finn debacle1. What I am interested in is the impulse fueling this controversy — the idea that the work of an author should not be altered to fit the needs or desires of a certain audience.

What does it mean to alter an author’s work? What are the ways that can be done? I’ve been chewing on those questions for the last couple of weeks, and I thought I’d try to work some ideas out on this blog.

So far as I can tell, there seem to be six basic forms of literary alteration. Each of them carries different implications — some good, some bad, some neutral. In the spirit of fairness, I’m going to try talking about each type in terms both positive and negative. Here goes:

1) ABRIDGMENT –  this may well be the most socially-accepted form of alteration in our culture. Books are abridged all the time to make them more accessible or simply shorter. Abridgment is usually most appreciated in long works like Don Quixote. (Take it from the guy who read all 400,000 words: that book could use some trimming.) On the other hand, what could be more mercenary than to alter a text for fear of boredom?2 In a world of shrinking attention spans, is abridgment a necessity, or is it just an example of lowest-common-denominator thinking?

2) APPROPRIATION – appropriation involves taking passages from a previously existing work and re-fashioning them into something new. This form of alteration has been well-covered in the world of pop music (mash-ups, sampling, remixes), but it also happens in books. Literary appropriation usually works best when it functions as homage or satire. The less-appealing version of appropriation might be what I would call “parasite” books — in which authors try to make their own terrible books more palatable by associating them with canonical classics.

3) EXPURGATION – There’s no shortage of stories about books that have been Bowdlerized for the sake of young readers. Famous among them are PL Travers’ late alterations to Mary Poppins, and Roald Dahl’s 1973 revision of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The above examples were changes made at the behest of the authors (or at least with their permission). There are also much more pernicious examples of expurgation performed without the author’s consent — as it was with Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. It’s pretty clear that altering a living author’s words against their will is condemnable, but what about after they are dead? Is there any way to know whether a dead author would or wouldn’t want to expunge offensive passages from his or her own work?3

4) ADAPTATION – Like abridgment, adaptation seems to pass in our culture without moral judgment. Instead, people restrain their remarks to whether “the book was better.”  I’m not sure why this is the case, as many times adaptations do not just dramatize or condense — they also make fundamental changes to the meaning of a story. Remember how “The Little Mermaid” is supposed to end? To tie this to the current debate: why was it less offensive to hear Elijah Wood clean up Huck’s language in the 1993 Disney movie? My suspicion is that adaptation gets a free pass because of expectations: people assume there will be changes in an adaptation, and thus feel less outraged when they encounter them.

5) EXPANSION – This type of alteration is different from the ones previous because it does not deal with cutting away parts of the original text. Instead it is a matter of adding story on either end. I would argue that giving Anne Shirley a posthumous prequel or detailing the origins of Neverland changes the original work just as much as any other form of alteration. If a character is the sum of their actions, then adding actions changes the character. This isn’t just a question of modern-day writers revising the canon. Living authors are just as likely to change their own works by adding further installments — sometimes to the detriment of the original. Don’t believe me? I present to you EXHIBIT A.

6) TRANSLATION – this last form of alteration has an added hurdle: many people don’t speak two languages, which means they have no ability to judge the fidelity of a translation. I would add to this the question of whether being faithful-in-word is as important as being faithful-in-spirit. The King James edition of the bible is widely considered to be one of the least accurate translations out there, but it is also the most beautiful. Another justification for translation-alterations might have to do with cultural sensitivity. For example: my upcoming novel will be published in Indonesia, which wikipedia tells me is the most populous Muslim nation in the world.  I do not think Peter Nimble contains anything offensive to Muslim readers, but if I am wrong, I sure hope that translators will catch it and make appropriate changes.

This list is by no means exhaustive. I’m sure there are more categories of alteration (and if you think of any, please let me know in the comments!). Still, it is my attempt to work through some of the issues circulating in the heated debate surrounding The Adventures of Huckelberry Finn.

So what did I learn?

Firstly, I think the reason this topic has divided so many different people is because there is a lack of clarity about which type of alteration is taking place. Certainly Alan Gribben is expurgating Twain’s book, but is he also translating it? After all, the contested word has gained a lot more cultural baggage in the 100+ years since the book was written.

Another question seems to deal with whether this new edition will be presented as complete. When I was working through the six types of alteration above, I noticed that the most condemnable version of each act was tied to secrecy. If you alter a work without informing the reader, you are lying. It seems like much of the objection to the New South edition of Huckleberry Finn assumes that this book will be marketed — and blindly received — as the complete, original text.

One positive outcome from all this media fuss is that it has created awareness about the alterations … whether the publisher wanted it or not 4. Even better, it has brought a wonderful book — and a wonderfully complicated moral puzzle — into the national spotlight.

Now if only we could get Mark Twain invited onto the “Today Show.”

  1. 1. Editor Alan Gribben reacts to the issue in the School Library Journal here
  2. 2. or, even worse, as a way to cut printing costs
  3. 3. for more on this subject, check out Phil Nel’s wonderful post here
  4. 4. After reading the thoughtful introduction to the New South edition, I am inclined to think that the publishers were pretty forthright about the changes they made

8 Comments Leave a Comment

  • Scope Notes says:

    Thanks for the post Jonathan – a number of sound points raised here. It is interesting to see how the Huck Finn situation fits in with past examples of alteration. As an added bonus, now I better understand why I disliked The Tale of Despereaux movie so much, as it combines most of the methods you listed into the perfect storm of bad storytelling.

  • Sean Epstein-Corbin says:

    I think clarifying the issues involved in the public’s outrage/defense of the Newsouth edition is a healthy exercise. While the debate over Huck Finn draws on some general debates in literary adaptation, it also has its own unique contours.

    Huck Finn isn’t just a work of literature, nor is it just a historical document (that’s as true of Romeo & Juliet, Little Women, and Oliver Twist). Huck Finn is also a heuristic for our national history. It has been, for a long time, the primary means by which each of us gains access to the dynamic problem of slavery in our past. To many, changing the heuristic feels like trying to change the history it’s used to teach.

    I think we also often ignore the fact that Huck Finn rests in a constellation of texts used in high schools to teach race, including To Kill a Mockingbird, Invisible Man, and Night. The N-word pops up over 12 times in Ellison’s text, and makes a dramatic entrance into several scenes in TKAM. Will it be expunged from these texts also? If not, how is a teacher to explain this contradiction to her students?

    Granted, simply having an edition with the N-word expunged shouldn’t be equated with its widespread adoption in schools. Still, I think this is the lingering fear that fueled public outrage. I think this speaks to your point about the Newsouth edition gaining credence as an “authoritative” text. Huck Finn has been abridged a hundred times, but these abridgments haven’t been presented before as “originals” or authoritative “replacements” for the original.

  • alex says:

    I really appreciate that you have brought up the Huck Finn issue in terms of other common (and oftentimes more acceptable) types of literary alteration, and your post has inspired with me with many and various thoughts!

    1. Where should the issue of excerpting works (generally to fit into massive anthologies) go? For example, in the Norton Anthology of English Literature (volume 1) that I’m holding right now, only some of the tales in The Canterbury Tales and some of the sections from Morte Darthur are included. We shouldn’t ignore the money at stake in the excerpting/anthology game. What is it okay to excerpt? I guess it’s okay to provide some of the sonnets from Astrophil and Stella (a sonnet cycle) but necessary to print all books of Paradise Lost. What are the pedagogical implications of excerpting, either by using an anthology or, as I have done in classes, teaching single poems (out of their book contexts)?

    2. We shouldn’t forget the many authors that revise their own works, not to please detractors or make the texts better suited to a certain subset of readers, but because the texts were written hastily at first or, wonder or wonders, the authors changed their minds. Dickens always revised his books from the serial versions to the book versions that followed. Wilkie Collins had to correct problems of chronology found in his serial texts. The serial version of Stevenson’s Treasure Island is missing some of the most beautiful and famous passages of the book version. And what to do with the two very different endings to Great Expectations (Wilkie Collins convinced Dickens that his original ending, not the ending generally published today, was too depressing) that exist in this odd limbo together?

    3. A very common type of literary alteration is “commonsense” editing. With the Victorian novels I study, the editor generally, in a “Note on the Text,” explains the issues (punctuation, spelling, etc.) that were standardized and corrected throughout the text. The editor oftentimes has to choose which edition/manuscript to base the text on, and these editions/manuscripts usually have small or large differences.

    We should try to move away from the idea of there being a pure, unadulterated, perfect text (the conflicting/conflated versions of Shakespeare alone should prove this!) that exists, untouched, in realization of its true self.

    However, if this new edition is what it takes to get Huck Finn taught again in certain schools, I say it’s not worth it. Who says that this novel must be taught? Who says that the need to teach this novel is SO great that changing it so radically (and yes, I think it’s a radical change) is an equitable exchange? There are other great novels (that actually include female characters!) that don’t present this challenge, if it proves to be an insurmountable challenge.

    Ultimately, though, I am most worried about what the new version of the novel says about the state of teaching and our modern assumptions about reading. I hope there are still teachers out there (like my 11th grade English teacher) who are willing and able to rise to the challenge of teaching this book (or of any book that proves debatable), of risking an uncomfortable classroom, of being willing to set up Twain not only as someone who was critical of the society he lived in, but as someone who does not exist on a pedestal so high that he too can’t be criticized. And let’s hope that we understand that we don’t read just to be comfortable, to be presented with a view of the world that matches with our own. I read, anyway, to be made uncomfortable, angry, self-reflective, happy, lachrymose. I read to force myself to sympathize and empathize with characters, cultures, value systems, and time periods that I don’t associate myself with. When everything we read becomes an easy mirror of what we want to see…well, then that isn’t reading, is it?

  • Craig Chapman says:

    EXHIBIT B: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wF7mlRDyA5Y
    EXHIBIT C: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5C9JX6VRjn0
    EXHIBIT…this could go on forever…

    Arghh…subtraction by expansion. Don’t actually watch “C” it will rot your soul, and in my quick search, I couldn’t find a short version.

    More seriously, I think the most important point made in this thoughtful post is the mere fact that we ARE talking about it. In my mind, this separates this particular example of alteration (or – more generally – censorship) from most where the consuming public are actually unaware of the alteration or omission. I was raised in a place where many of the choices regarding ‘appropriate’ literature for schools (altered or otherwise) were made by a board whose ideals were not always reflective of my own. However, as a student, I was completely unaware that choices regarding my reading list were largely out of my hands.

    I may not agree with this alteration of Huck Finn, but this discussion, As Jon points out, has brought light to an important issue. A reader informed of the alteration has the choice – and regardless whether the choice is to read or not read a particular word, the issue has been acknowledged.

  • alex says:

    Also, although you are right to note that the word in question has garnered some extra heavy cultural baggage since the novel was published, should we change/adapt every word that has garnered extra cultural baggage since it was originally used? What should one do with all the sexist and racist words/phrases in, say, Shakespeare? Why can’t this be a teaching moment when the teacher gets out a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary and starts to explain that words are alive and flexible and that their definitions and connotations change over time? I remember, in 12th grade, discussing with a fellow student what exactly Hardy meant by “making love” in Tess (I’m pretty sure it was in reference to Angel and Tess’s early acquaintance). I tried to explain that in that time and in that context, it meant flirting or courting, while the other student remained convinced that it must have its current meaning, some kind of sexual relationship. Dictionaries (especially one that traces a word over time and includes obsolete meanings, like the OED) should be more commonly used in classrooms and in classroom discussions about literature.

  • 100 ScopeNotes: glad you like the post. Funny you say that about DESPEREAUX, which seemed fairly faithful to me (if memory serves… which it rarely does).

    Sean: point taken about this book’s unique roll in America. I think the unique roll of HUCK FINN may trump any argument I make above. Also, thank you for inserting the word “heuristic” into the conversation.

    Alex: You’re probably right that “Excerpting” should be its own category. I also love your memory of 12th grade, learning how words shift over time. It reminds me of Nietzsche, who described language as being an “infinitely complex dome of ideas on a movable foundation and as it were on running water.”

    Craig: you read my mind about the midi-chloreans! I actually drafted an entire paragraph devoted to how that addition harmed the original trilogy more than Jar-Jar Binks ever could.

  • […] for something to read, you should check out some of the brilliant observations readers left on Monday’s post about the whole Huck Finn debacle — one of the perks of having  children’s lit scholar […]

  • The one book-to-movie expansion that I really liked was Shrek. How the heck did they go from point a to point b while keeping the premise of the book intact? That was genius!





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