Some theses on books and race, not directly related to but inspired by some of the comment that these new edits of Huckleberry Finn have caused. Feel free to apply these (in modified forms obviously) to sexism, or most other forms of discrimination. I repeat, none of this is directly related to Twain’s book. I haven’t read Huckleberry Finn. (For actual Huck Finn commentary, see here,here and here).
Thesis 1: Racism was not invented in the Twentieth century.
Things which were not perceived as racist when they were written may still have been so at the time; they did not magically come to be that way after someone proposed this revolutionary idea that we should treat all people like human beings. It also means that things a lot of us consider completely innocent now will likely be looked upon with horror in a few decades. As long as we’re moving in the direction of being nicer to a greater number of living beings, this is a good thing and does not cause me too much concern.
There’s a particular defence of racism in literature that I find insulting to pretty much everyone involved. That is that people living at a particular point in time simply didn’t know better than to be racist. This is patronising to start with – “s/he doesn’t know any better” is not the sort of remark you make about someone you’re treating as an intellectual or moral equal. But it’s also only varying degrees of true. At most points in history there have been plenty of people suggesting that certain forms of behaviour were not okay – it’s one of the ways we’ve gotten to (at least) this point. I’m not suggesting that it doesn’t take effort, or that it isn’t far easier to believe what your society and the structures that make it up make it easiest to believe. But, particularly in the twentieth century, the means for knowing better have always been there, and people who chose to have had the opportunity to seek them out. To suggest that this is not the case does a tremendous disservice to all the people and movements in history that worked so hard at taking those first steps and making those thought processes available.
Three words: Heart of Darkness. Strongly anti-colonialist. Frequently very beautiful (subjective, I know. But I think it is and so do many other people). Racist. I’m not a huge fan of people who dismiss it entirely for that last characteristic, but I prefer them to the sort of people who believe that because of its anti-colonial stance it simply cannot be racist and the rest of us are all just missing the point.
[Corollary: “The author once said this thing that was really progressive” is not a particularly strong defense of a work of literature.]
And thus we descend into lolcat speak. I’m against removing words from books. I think we need to keep them there and confront our pasts. And this is a viewpoint I’ve seen in a lot of commentary on the Huckleberry Finn debate. It’s well-meant, and to a point I agree with it. But I’d like to do this with the understanding that making those decisions for everyone is a tricky issue. No one has a right to mandate individual responses to words – certainly not in situations where the fraught histories of those words have generally been to the disadvantage of the individual whose response you are attempting to mandate. This has all gotten very convoluted.
Certain Tolkien Scholars, no one cares how many medieval texts you cite to prove that the portrayals of certain groups of people were *only* that way so they’d echo his literary tradition. Missing the point. Stop now.