A short clip on NPR this morning discussed a new edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn put out by NewSouth Books that will replace the “n-word” with “slave.” Apparently, the former term has decreased readership due to censorship in public schools and a general discomfort among American readers. Check out more on this from Publisher’s Weekly.
I wonder what David Tracy, the Catholic systematic theologian at the University of Chicago, would have to say about this? After all, Tracy’s tome The Analogical Imagination—as seminal to theologians as Huck’s tale is to scholars in American literature—attempts to explain what “classics” such as Twain’s are all about. Classics are timeless. Even though they are situated in particular times and places they pose questions worth reflecting on. They contain an excess of meanings since they use symbols to disclose some sort of truth to us. In Tracy’s words, we “find ourselves ‘caught up’ in their world” and are “shocked, surprised and challenged by their startling beauty.”
But Tracy also highlights the more uncomfortable aspects of classics. They confront us with truth that we would otherwise shield ourselves from. We don’t read them as much as they read us, revealing to us things that we might have never come to recognize in ourselves or know about our social location. Classics demand that we talk about them publicly, communicating what we’ve discovered with a wider community. Again, here’s Tracy: “Its memory enters as a catalyst into all other memories and, now subtly, now compelling, transforms our perceptions of the real…always disclosive and transformative with its truth of importance.”
At a point in American history when it seems to me that we are entirely too quick to dismiss the reality of racial injustice (this being a post-Civil Rights age with a black man in the White House), when the “n-word” is practically a trademark in some aspects popular culture, when a variety of patois seem to have confounded if not eviscerated its meaning, and when Catholics have only begun to wrestle with the original sin of racism in our tradition and Church, I think we ought question the wisdom of this editorial choice. Removing the “n-word” from Twain’s classic removes the much-needed invitation, nay imperative, to explore the meaning of that word at various points in American history, and how this symbol functioned and continues to function differently for different people.
You can whitewash fences, as Huck and Tom knew all too well, but not classics.