“So, class, this was written a long time ago, and there are people in it using a word we don’t like to hear. Open up to page ___ and see what word it is.
“Now, when you start this book, you might think it’s just about a white kid and a black guy and some trip they took. But we’re going to see that this book is what the country you live in is all about.
“But back to that word. When Mark Twain had people using that word, he was trying to show readers how wrong that was. Twain isn’t calling somebody the word; he’s showing people using it. And we’re still going to read the book, because we can’t pretend that bad things didn’t happen in the past, and we know you wouldn’t want us to. That word is part of this country’s past — and present, too, as you all know from music.” (The class chuckles.) “But in the past, it was used even more, and by white people.
“That doesn’t mean we’re going to use it, though. Just as we don’t want anyone here calling anybody that, we’re not going to say it in class while we talk about this book. Whenever you want to say something about a line in the book with that word, substitute ‘n-word’ or something — you can choose. Don’t get silly about it, and don’t let it sound too much like the real word. You know what I mean.
“OK? Next class, we’ll start talking about a really good book.”
I don’t call that little speech rocket science. Yet NewSouth Books would seem to be creating a baby-food version of Huckleberry Finn, with the n-word replaced by “slave” because of feedback from teachers who claim the book has become “unteachable.”
I see. Eighth-graders are too unformed to understand the difference between someone calling someone else the n-word and an author using the word in an ancient book to reveal characters as ignorant. Interesting, given that the same eighth-graders hear the same word used by rappers daily and understand the difference between that usage — as a term of endearment — and the epithet one.
It’s fascinating, this openness of wise, scholarly sorts to tampering with a classic. Now and then I have proposed that Shakespearean language, when spoken, is often nearly impossible to understand by someone who hasn’t read it beforehand, and that there should be editions that substitute modern words for ones that now require footnoting. The response each time is predictable: Shakespeare fans tear me to ribbons in public venues (while a bunch of people quietly write to me privately, saying that they agree with me!).
I wager that the folks at NewSouth would be in the former group. They would likely turn down a proposal I sent suggesting that an edition of Measure for Measure open with a passage a little more comprehensible than “Of government the properties to unfold/Would seem in me to affect speech and discourse/Since I am put to know that your own science/Exceeds, in that, the lists of all advice/My strength can give you.”
This is Shakespeare, of course — heaven forbid we alter it! And yet, here are the same types open to altering Twain. Why? Wouldn’t you know, it’s the grand old race taboo. When it comes to this sequence of sounds beginning with “n” and ending with “r,” all bets are off.