Saturday, January 08, 2011

The X Word

In the kerfuffle over the bowdlerizing of Huckleberry Finn, count me as firmly ensconced in the camp of those who want to stick with the unbowdlerized,  no emendations (call us the "Latin Mass" party).  I do, however, join those who think this particular act of history-scrubbing has less to do with confused liberalism than it does with the campaign to sanitize the history of the south.  Count Professor Gribben among those who want to turn Southern history into a Disney movie, and with Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour who seems to believe that the White Citizens Councils were just a branch of the Kiwanis Club.

I do grant that there are some operational issues here. Recall that the dreaded n-word does occur not just once but (it says here) 219 times in the course of a not-very-long novel.  Here's one reason I know: a few years back Mrs. Buce spent a few days cooped up in a hospital bed, conscious and lucid but immobile.  Her condition mandated a lot of distraction which, in our house,usually means a lot of reading aloud.  Heaven knows why but for some reason we chose this occasion to tackle Twain's classic.

Work on this picture.  Palookaville is just like any place else in America these days which means that the hospital staff is an authentic rainbow coalition.  You've got Caribbean attendants, Pilipino nurses, Indian doctors, Amerind orderlies, even the occasional bewildered white guy pushing a mop.  They're in and out of the room at all hours, with or (usually) without announcement.  Anyway, it took us about two swallowed sentences to realize we'd better talk in code.

Here's another person who knows how to be economical with the N word:
"We's safe, Huck, we's safe! Jump up and crack yo' heels, dat's de good ole Cairo at las', I jis knows it!"
I says:
"I'll take the canoe and go see, Jim. It mightn't be, you know."
He jumped and got the canoe ready, and put his old coat in the bottom for me to set on, and give me the paddle; and as I shoved off, he says:
"Pooty soon I'll be a-shout'n for joy, en I'll say, it's all on accounts o' Huck; I's a free man, en I couldn't ever ben free ef it hadn't ben for Huck; Huck done it. Jim won't ever forgit you, Huck; you's de bes' fren' Jim's ever had; en you's de only fren' ole Jim's got now."
I was paddling off, all in a sweat to tell on him; but when he says this, it seemed to kind of take the tuck all out of me. I went along slow then, and I warn't right down certain whether I was glad I started or whether I warn't. When I was fifty yards off, Jim says:
"Dah you goes, de ole true Huck; de on'y white genlman dat ever kep' his promise to ole Jim."
Well, I just felt sick. But I says, I got to do it- I can't get out of it. Right then, along comes a skiff with two men in it, with guns, and they stopped and I stopped. One of them says: "What's that, yonder?"
"A piece of a raft," I says.
"So you belong on it?"
"Yes, sir."
"Any men on it?"
"Only one, sir."
"Well, there's five niggers run off to-night, up yonder above the head of the bend. Is your man white or black?"
I didn't answer up prompt. I tried to, but the words wouldn't come. I tried, for a second or two, to brace up and out with it, but I warn't man enough- hadn't the spunk of a rabbit. I see I was weakening; so I just give up trying, and up and says-
"He's white."
From Huckleberry Finn, Chapter 16.   

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