January 8, 2011

Taking the GG Out of Literature

Justin Katz

During my time as a college English student, with professors being predictably as you can imagine they were, I was struck by how powerful a set of letters "nigger" could be — first, as a dehumanizing attack and, later, as a literary marker of the speaker's ignorance. Particularly in postbellum literature, and especially in certain fonts, that double-g looks like a dark jab scattered across the page. Whether the book that first gave me that impression was something by William Faulkner or was Huck Finn, I don't recall, but it came to mind upon reading of an edition of Mark Twain's book that replaces all instances of the word with "slave."

As Twain once said, "the difference the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter — it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning."

Rich Lowry has posted a letter that makes the point well. Readers of Huck Finn can't help but discern the author's criticism of those using the word, and the callousness of their attitude toward human life. There's a callousness to removing the word, as well.

My reading of the book, which I described in academic detail in the essay that kept me out of Brown University's graduate program in Literature, makes this point central to a sly, more intriguing intention that I believe to have been Twain's underlying purpose for the book. Addressing longstanding and heated disapproval of Twain's reintroduction of Tom Sawyer for the climax of the book — which has led multiple critics to declare the ending an unforgivable failure, with no less a figure than Ernest Hemingway calling it "cheating" — I proposed that Twain was putting the reader in the position of the character of whom he or she was apt to be most critical:

When it is considered that, at Huck's moral juncture, Tom comes into an adventure in progress with privileged information, a new link is seen: this time to the reader. Tom's reappearance for the Phelps section does lead to a change in the book (as is evident from the controversy over the end), but only inasmuch as we were expecting (read "hoping") for something different. A reader hoping to read a Jim-as-hero-escaping-from-slavery story would be, essentially, hoping to do (or hoping that the author does) exactly what Tom tries to do from his point of view: make the book interesting in a certain way, in part by making Jim into a specific type of hero. In the Connecticut of the 1880s, this would translate into a desire to "set [Jim] free" even though "he was already free" (Twain, 262). It is not necessarily requisite to this conclusion that the reader of this, or our, era would see Jim, specifically, as free; it is enough that the post–Civil War reader (and, more so, the modern reader) would consider freedom as some intrinsic quality of humanity in much the same way that it is possible, now, to see the Emancipation Proclamation as an overdue formality — the Civil War itself can be said to have set free people free (like a liberation of civilian hostages in a hostile country who are being held unjustly or against their rights). ...

Ultimately, a reader who is upset at the ending is put in a parallel role to Tom — wanting to set a free slave free in a manner that accords to his or her own sense of heroism (and, if you wish, morality). As stated by Fritz Oehschlaeger, "something in us longs for quite a different outcome, one that would allow Jim to retain his heroic stature and force Huck to live up to the decision that accompanies his tearing up of the letter to Miss Watson." [21] In other words, like Tom, the reader wants circumstances to allow Jim and Huck to become heroes according to the reader's definition.

It is not a testament to a fortitude of national character that a significant portion of our population would, in a sense, so dramatically merge the reader's role with that of Tom. To my reading, Twain merely implied the connection, in keeping with his dark, wry humor. Now, in seeking to sanitize the culture that enslaved Jim, making the story more to the tastes of the modern audience, the reader is doing precisely what Tom Sawyer has drawn fire for doing: selfishly making light of the black man's predicament.

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I commented on this below under "Affecting What We Can."
Very disturbing-a trend toward "correcting"literature.

Posted by: joe bernstein at January 8, 2011 4:32 PM

Although it never rose to the level of criticism, in my youth I did wonder about Tom's reappearance in Huck's story. I have noticed in movie reviews that when people, or things, appear without plausible explanation in a movie, the plot is approvingly described as "magical". I suppose some is mind set before the review, or whether you wish to provide an approving review.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at January 8, 2011 6:16 PM

It was not your insight, nor your style that kept you out of grad school--it was your sex/race. Sorry, hopefully you will join with others of similar experience to organize a place of support and influence to help make it harder for others to be victimized in the same way, by the same people.

Posted by: facultywife at January 9, 2011 1:09 AM

Thanks to Facultywife for raising my o/t question.

Justin, *why* were you not admitted to Brown grad school?

Posted by: Monique at January 9, 2011 8:40 AM

Well, I managed to get in touch with the appropriate faculty member (which, to the university's credit, I was only able to do at Brown) and ask why, despite excellent GRE scores, a near 4.0 GPA, and glowing letters of recommendation from professors who explicitly disagreed with me, other professors for whom I'd worked in the office, as well as the university president (himself a literary buff).

He said that the committee had felt that I could have picked a more challenging opponent to address in my Huck Finn essay. When I pointed out that I'd explicitly chosen that opposing critic as an example to illustrate my reading of the book (which was the actual substance of the paper), I got the verbal equivalent of shrugged shoulders.

Posted by: Justin Katz at January 9, 2011 8:58 AM

hey-academia is no different than any other milieu(maybe more sheltered and cozy)-there are really good minds and otthers lodged in the sigmoid colon.

Posted by: joe bernstein at January 9, 2011 4:14 PM

While Brown's science departments deserve their fame, nearly the entire liberal arts faculty and the leadership have been so thoroughly corrupted by cultural Marxists that you aren't losing anything by not studying there. It has become a BS school, alright.

Posted by: BobN at January 9, 2011 4:17 PM

Another feather in your right wing head dress. Denied access to Brown. This is somewhat small don't you think. I would not rank Brown acceptance as a measuring stick to be of any importance. They accept people on their own terms- a mix of Trustifarians, wealthy insiders, and the others. Maybe they already had selected the right wing contrarian and you got left outside.

Posted by: David S at January 9, 2011 6:11 PM

The Brown Medical School turns out some really superior doctors and the same for theeir residency program.
I get to meet a lot of Brown residents at the VA and I can't think of a single one who went there as an undergrad,although I haven't asked all of them.
David S is actually right this time-I don't think you missed much.
One of the med students said she was from Brown and I guess I was looking mopey,so she said,"hey,we're serious in med school-not like those kids running around playing revolutionaries"-I kid you not.I got the point she was making.

Posted by: joe bernstein at January 10, 2011 6:38 AM
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