Censoring The Past
BY ARIEL SMILOWITZ
In George Orwell’s classic novel 1984, Winston Smith lives in Oceania, a nation built upon what was formerly known as Europe. The country is run by the ruling Party; the Party severely oppresses its people, who are under the constant scrutiny of security cameras. However, the Party’s most brutal tactic doesn’t involve telescreens, or even Big Brother’s watchful gaze; rather, the people of Oceania are an oppressed people because the Party controls their history and language. In this dystopia, history is literally rewritten according to the Party’s interests. Photographs and documents of the past are strictly forbidden, so as a result, the people’s memories often become fuzzy and unreliable, and they eventually resort to believing everything the Party tells them. Most importantly, English is controlled through Newspeak, a language that is constantly changing, with the ultimate goal of eliminating the ability to conceptualize thoughts and ideas. 1984 and its themes of history, language, and thought control, may seem unrealistic in today’s times, however, this idea of an oppressive society is not far from the truth.
Recently, NewSouth Books announced that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, is getting a makeover. This new version is being re-released in hopes that the book, which has caused much controversy throughout its existence, will reappear on more reading lists around the country. However, this new version of America’s most classic novel is fundamentally different: the word “nigger” does not appear once throughout the book. The word, which is used over 200 times, is being replaced with “slave” instead.
Ernest Hemingway once proclaimed of Huckleberry Finn – “All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” This is exactly why the novel should remain as it is. It is such a crucial piece of our history, as it not only helped influence American writing, but it also portrays a very dark, yet nonetheless significant, era of our history and culture. The fact that students across America will never read the word “nigger” when they open this book is a disturbing thought; why would we want to lie to these children and the generations that will follow them? Many professors have stated that they are mortified whenever they read the novel aloud in their class, however, depriving a student insight into the life of Huckleberry Finn is a more serious crime than uttering a disturbing word. Students who read this new edition won’t be able to understand Huck’s realization that doing what is morally right is more important than following societal standards and norms, a concept that is the underlying theme of the novel.
Mark Twain’s continual use of the word is not coincidence. In fact, he used it intentionally in order to portray the social status that existed at the time. The word is supposed to make you feel uncomfortable, and that was exactly what Twain was trying to accomplish. Literature is a window into the time it was written, warts and all; projecting modern day attitudes into a piece of our history changes the substance of the novel and perverts our perception of the truth.
Words are extremely malleable and are constantly twisted and distorted when they are given a new context. The same concept applies when “nigger” is used in the modern day context of rap music, which desensitizes the word. However, when the word is used in the context of Huckleberry Finn it takes on a different meaning, one that is still dirty and humiliating. Erasing the term will in effect erase the fact that discrimination occurred in this country, and will in fact rewrite history.
Furthermore, this new edition is a perfect example of modern day thought and language control. Language is a manifestation of human thought; it structures the way people formulate ideas and express themselves, and is a central component to mankind and human progress. Thus, altering the content of any expression of the human mind implies that it is okay to control what we write, think, and feel.
The removal or changing of any word in Huckleberry Finn, or any other book, marks a dangerous shift in this country. Rather than hide the truth, it is essential for these children to read and understand the significant impact the word has made in the history of this country. That way, they can make sure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated in the future. Thus, for the future of our country’s sake, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn must not be rewritten, or else our history, culture, and language will be rewritten as well, and George Orwell’s oppressive dystopia will come to fruition after all.