Dr. Alan Gribben
336 Liberal Arts Building
Montgomery, AL 36124-4023
Dr. Alan Gribben,
I’m sure this is not the first letter you’ve received, nor will it be the last, but as a pre-service teacher I feel it is my obligation and privilege to enter the great debate you have started. I agree with you that there is offensive language within Mark Twain’s novel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Students exposed to the repulsive N word may be offended, like your daughter was.
In the introduction to your version you write, “We may applaud Twain's ability as a prominent American literary realist to record the speech of a particular region during a specific historical era, but abusive racial insults that bear distinct connotations of permanent inferiority nonetheless repulse modern-day readers.”
This is absolutely true. Modern-day readers do have this reaction. However, isn’t this the effect we want? As a future teacher, I want my students to understand that obscene words have literary merit. Readers are supposed to be disgusted and feel awkward about the words and subject, because that is the desired effect of the author.
As a literary scholar, you are probably aware of the obscenity trial against Lawrence Ferlinghetti for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” in 1957. During the trial, many literary scholars proclaimed the poem had no literary merit. The rhetoric was argued as repulsive, offensive, and unnecessary. However, the judge overseeing the trial, Judge Horn, deemed that the work has “redeeming social importance.” This set the precedent that repugnant language can be a valuable part of writing.
When I get to teach my students how to write a personal statement or write creatively, they will not be censored. I will teach them how to use language and when they can use certain conventions. They will be able to use obscene language if it enhances the meaning of their work, just as Mark Twain did. It’s important for students to know how to use obscene words because the writer’s job is to hold a mirror up to society. This is what I want to teach my students to do, but how can I if they believe obscene words should be omitted like you do? It is important for me to teach that the use of offensive words is a literary choice and tool to develop constructive work. Censoring our rhetoric will only devalue language and how it is used.
You are aware that the offensive words being replaced are important to this country’s past rhetoric. But do you know that these words are also important to today’s rhetoric? Students hear the N word in music, television, and movies all the time. Comparing the use of the word in Twain’s novel to how it is used in media today would be a great way to teach rhetoric, and explain how it changes over time.
Keeping literary works uncensored gives teachers the opportunity to show students the value of rhetoric and creative choices. They can learn how powerful rhetoric can be, and how they can use it in their own writing. I implore you to rethink your position on this issue, and realize the importance that obscene rhetoric has in writing and the teaching of writing.