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Thursday, January 6, 2011

Twain was clear; don't mess with his dialects.

Commentators from The Atlantic, the National Review and the Colbert Report are just a few of those who have weighed in about the publication of altered versions of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

The single-volume, NewSouth edition of those works was edited by Professor Alan Gribben of Auburn University and will be available next month. In that monograph, the editor changed the word “nigger” to “slave”. The word “injun” was changed to “indian”.

The intent, according to the editor, was to produce versions of the classics for young readers and others offended by the originals’ language. He acknowledged some “textual purists” would not view his changes as benign. And indeed, some argue the new versions of Twain’s works could cause serious damage to the collective memory. That belief was summed up well on the editorial page of yesterday’s New York Times. That piece reads in part:

We are horrified, and we think most readers, textual purists or not, will be horrified too. The trouble isn’t merely adulterating Twain’s text. It’s also adulterating social, economic and linguistic history. Substituting the word “slave” makes it sound as though all the offense lies in the “n-word” and has nothing to do with the institution of slavery. Worse, it suggests that understanding the truth of the past corrupts modern readers, when, in fact, this new edition is busy corrupting the past.
I'll leave the debate to others, but I will point readers to two particularly rich Twain resources. The ultimate aim of the Mark Twain Project, according to the website, is produce a digital critical edition -  fully annotated -  of everything Mark Twain wrote. That site, which is part of the California Digital Library, features more than 2300 letters writing by Twain. Additionally you’ll find access the full text of Twain’s autobiography as well as the full Text of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. More digitized texts will be added in the future.

Mark Twain in His Times is a collection compiled by the English department at the University of Virginia. That collection features dozens of texts and manuscripts, scores of contemporary reviews and articles, hundreds of images, and many different kinds of interactive exhibits.

The picture of Twain above right comes from the Library of Congress. The image at left is the explanatory note Twain provided for Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It appears in a digitzed volume made available by the Internet Archive. In light of this ongoing debate, that note is definitley worth a read.
In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary “Pike County” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last.

The shadings have not been done in a hap-hazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.

I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.
Just some food for thought.

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