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True Grit: Language and Culture Aren't Neutral, Or, Huck Finn Meets the U. S. Constitution

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Headlined to H4 1/7/11

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This week we have been besieged by two assaults on our intelligence that coalesce on the question of language.   The first assault was brought by New South Publishers, who, in bringing out a "PC" version of Mark Twain's classic American novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, replaced the "n-word" with the word "slave."    This edit, they felt, would somehow prevent a new generation of potential readers from feeling awkward.  

The second assault was from the newly convened Republican Congress, who, in their infinite quest for purity of actions aligned with the literal truth contained in the U.S. Constitution, decided to read the founding document aloud in the House on opening day.   Not a bad practice, but it would have been more in keeping with their righteous literalist claims if they had actually read the whole document, instead of editing out the three-fifths clause and other sections that are contained in it.   

Both of these language issues are important for the same reason:   they assume that by changing the words in the present they can change the culture of the past that produced them.   In the case of Huck Finn, that assumption is false but relatively benign.   After all, as some commentators have pointed out, replacing the "n-word" with "slave" is hardly much of an improvement, particularly if you happen to be an African-American.   And "slave" still conjures up our racially divided past in ways that should provoke readers of the novel to discuss it openly.   We are not justified in simply forgetting about it, nor have we yet eradicated racism from our collective culture.   The issues raised in Huck Finn still resonate today, regardless of which word is used.   But replacing the original with a more politically correct copy is an injustice to the author and to the times.   We cannot, and should not rewrite history to suit the present or else we are doomed to pretend that the present is somehow no longer in need of improvement.   Hey, "slave" is okay with you Black folk, right?

I doubt it.   But what this word change does do is even worse--worse for African-Americans and worse for all of us--than changing the past to protect a more culturally sensitive present.   It suggests that "slave" is somehow neutral.   It suggests that the use of the term "slave" doesn't offend reader sensibilities, which then must also mean that the term also doesn't really connote the oppressive, immoral, and cruel use of human beings by their white owners for profit and personal satisfaction.   Right?   No, I'm sorry, but labeling someone a "slave" is culturally no better than calling them the "n-word" because both terms are entirely derogatory.

So why change the original to a poor copy that attempts, and fails, to obscure history, culture, and usage?   There is no good reason to do so.

That said, the move by House Republicans to change the U.S. Constitution by simply omitting offensive sections is even more ridiculous, but it should awaken Democrats and Independents to the fact that for these duly elected Teapublican representatives, nothing they claim to be sacrosanct is, in fact, sacrosanct.  

But of course we already knew that.   After all, why would candidates who opposed increasing the deficit then turn around and vote tax relief for the rich, which fails to address the deficit reduction they promised?   I know what you are thinking:   As my bad rewrite of Jim might have it: that jump of the shark has already done swum, Huck!

And so it has.   But just as dead language way down South in the Land of Cotton--such as the n-word or the three-fifths clause--is not forgotten, neither can we just "look away, look away, look away, Dixieland."   Because Dixieland has a whole new geography of the conservative mindset that spans this great land of ours and lives in the very real political and social issues that a righteous insistence on Constitutional literalism cannot but fail to address.  

For example, nowhere in our founding documents can you find the words (just to name a few) "energy plan," "solar power," "climate change," "wind power," "gay marriage," "health care," "tuition assistance," "home mortgage relief," "counter-terrorism," "Marine assault craft," or even "deficit reduction."   As my colleague Michael LeVan puts it: the real paradox is that "the Constitution does not explicitly call for a strict interpretation of itself."

So, if the literalists in the Congress want to remain true to their muse, then what they should do is open up to interpretation the document that its authors clearly intended to be opened up routinely and without regard for original intent.   Whether it was changed every few years, as John Adams opined, or every twenty, as Thomas Jefferson preferred--the point is that the founders fully understood that life moves forward, cultures and people change, and that events, inventions, and circumstances that the framers could not have foreseen deem it necessary.

Perhaps both the New South Publishers and the Congressional Republicans should learn a valuable lesson in language usage from--of all things--the Coen Brothers film, "True Grit."   For those of you who are familiar only with the John Wayne version, you should know that this new version is far truer to the Charles Portis novel from which it was derived.   What makes the newer film work so well is not just the fine acting and brilliant cinematography, but its keen allegiance to the language and culture found in Portis's tale, a language and culture that honors the fact that everyday speech during that time--even for salty U.S. Marshalls and virgin adolescents--was similarly derived from the Bible.  

As you will see, the film remains historically accurate from its high-toned righteousness concerning Old Testament-style revenge and disrespect for American Indians right down to its lack of conjunctions.   There are times when Rooster's appalling actions will make you turn your head away, much as if he had used the n-word or left out the three-fifths clause in the reading of the Constitution.   But our response is the point, the whole point, and nothing but.   There is much to be learned from U.S. history and culture, sometimes and in these cases especially when it hurts us to look and listen.

 

H. L. (Bud) Goodall, Jr. lives in Arizona where he is a college professor and writer. He has published 20 books and many articles and chapters on a variety of communication issues. His most recent books include Counter-Narrative: How Progressive (more...)
 
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In the above post I make the point that the real p... by Bud Goodall on Friday, Jan 7, 2011 at 11:49:19 AM