Freedom to Read Week 2011

February 20, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

February 20–26 is Freedom to Read Week in Canada, an annual event put on by the Book and Periodical Council to raise awareness about issues of censorship across the country. Comprising book and magazine publishers, librarians, writers, and others, the Freedom to Read Week committee sponsors a website and a week-long campaign that involves anti-censorship events across the country. The website also includes a list of challenged books and a series of case studies on censorship in Canada. In its position statement, the Freedom to Read committee states that they “oppose the detention, seizure, destruction, or banning of books and periodicals – indeed, any effort to deny, repress, or sanitize. Censorship does not protect society; it smothers creativity and precludes open debate of controversial issues.”

In support of this year’s Freedom to Read Week campaign, and as an acknowledgment that censorship remains a prevalent and dangerous force in our society, each day between now and February 26, TSR will highlight one book that has been challenged or banned in Canada over the years. Lest anyone should think that censorship and its insidious cousin, political correctness, are things of the past, the first such book should put the lie to that notion right away.

One of the most frequently challenged books in high school systems across the continent, Mark Twain’s 1884 novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is still subject to challenge and censure. Last month, news broke that an American scholar was releasing a sanitized version of Twain’s novel, with 219 instances of the word “nigger” removed and replaced with the word “slave.” The new edition’s editor, Alan Gribben of Auburn University at Montgomery, argues that the racial epithet is so untenable to readers in 2011 that it is necessary to excise it in order to ensure that the text be palatable to young and sensitive readers. Although the book is in the public domain, and therefore open to the kind of revision Professor Gribben promotes, there is no doubt that the changes denude the text of much of its force. It is also ironic that Professor Gribben should choose as his target a book by an author who was a noted racial progressive.

In a blistering editorial on January 5, 2011, The New York Times laid out the opposing position:

We are horrified, and we think most readers, textual purists or not, will be horrified too. The trouble isn’t merely adulterating Twain’s text. It’s also adulterating social, economic, and linguistic history. Substituting the word “slave” makes it sound as though all the offense lies in the “n-word” and has nothing to do with the institution of slavery. Worse, it suggests that understanding the truth of the past corrupts modern readers, when, in fact, this new edition is busy corrupting the past.

When Huckleberry Finn was published, Mark Twain appended a note on his effort to reproduce “painstakingly” the dialects in the book, including several backwoods dialects and “the Missouri negro dialect.” What makes Huckleberry Finn so important in American literature isn’t just the story, it’s the richness, the detail, the unprecedented accuracy of its spoken language. There is no way to “clean up” Twain without doing irreparable harm to the truth of his work.

Whitewashing history as a means of coddling readers’ sensitivities is one of the more insidious forms of censorship around; that this can occur in 2011, with the advocacy of a noted scholar, no less, underscores the importance of initiatives such as Freedom to Read Week.

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From The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain:

I got down there all out of breath but loaded up with joy, and sung out:

“Set her loose, Jim; we’re all right now!”

But there warn’t no answer, and nobody come out of the wigwam. Jim was gone! I set up a shout – and then another – and then another one; and run this way and that in the woods, whooping and screeching; but it warn’t no use – old Jim was gone. Then I set down and cried; I couldn’t help it. But I couldn’t set still long. Pretty soon I went out on the road, trying to think what I better do, and I run across a boy walking, and asked him if he’d seen a strange nigger dressed so and so, and he says:

“Yes.”

“Whereabouts?” says I.

“Down to Silas Phelps’s place, two mile below here. He’s a runaway nigger and they’ve got him. Was you looking for him?”

“You bet I ain’t! I run across him in the woods about an hour or two ago, and he said if I hollered he’d cut my livers out – and told me to lay down and stay where I was; and I done it. Been there ever since; afeard to come out.”

“Well,” he says, “you needn’t be afeard no more, becuz they’ve got him. He run off f’m down South, som’ers.”

“It’s a good job they got him.”

“Well, I reckon! There’s two hundred dollars’ reward on him. It’s like picking up money out’n the road.”

“Yes, it is – and I could ‘a’ had it if I’d been big enough; I see him first. Who nailed him?”

“It was an old feller – a stranger – and he sold out his chance in him for forty dollars, becuz he’s got to go up the river and can’t wait. Think o’ that, now! You bet I’d wait, if it was seven year.”

“That’s me, every time,” says I. “But maybe his chance ain’t worth no more than that, if he’ll sell it so cheap. Maybe there’s something ain’t straight about it.”

“But it is, though – straight as a string. I see the handbill myself. It tells all about him, to a dot – paints him like a picture, and tells the plantation he’s frum, below Newrleans. No-sirree-bob, they ain’t no trouble ’bout that speculation, you bet you. Say, gimme a chaw tobacker, won’t ye?”

I didn’t have none, so he left. I went to the raft, and set down in the wigwam to think. But I couldn’t come to nothing. I thought till I wore my head sore, but I couldn’t see no way out of the trouble. After all this long journey and after all we’d done for them scoundrels, here it was all come to nothing, everything all busted up and ruined, because they could have the heart to serve Jim such a trick as that and make him a slave again all his life, and amongst strangers, too, for forty dirty dollars.

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