Friday, January 7, 2011

Huck & Fagin, Twain & Dickens

I tried to write and post something here yesterday about the new edition of Huckleberry Finn being published by NewSouth and the storm of criticism it's aroused because of the publisher's decision to remove the word n----- from every page where it appears in Mark Twain's novel. But I decided to hold off as it became clearer to me just how complex this issue is. I still don't think it's about censorship. And I do think the editor's stated concerns, about teachers and students being put in the position of saying that horrid word when reading passages aloud, and about parents worrying about its effect on their children, merit grappling with. But as I read more and more reactions to the revision--including author Tayari Jones' comment on replacing that word with the word slave, "I find it peculiar that the concept of human chattel is not too harsh for young readers, but a six-letter word renders this work obscene"--one fact above all stood out. To a person, every African American writer commenting on the NewSouth revision opposes it. That, in my view, is decisive. This wave of commentary was for me educational and thought-provoking.

Then I started wondering whether there had been objections to Twain's language at the time of the book's original 1884 publication, or during his lifetime which lasted 26 more years. That was the time of Jim Crow, of the rise of the KKK, of lynch law terror in the South and racist riots in the North, and also of the founding of the NAACP, the anti-lynching crusades of Ida B. Wells, the activism and early writings of W.E.B. DuBois. Amid all this, did anyone challenge Twain on what he called the character of Jim in the book? And if so, how did he respond? While this current controversy plays itself out, who knows, maybe some literary scholar will pipe up with that information. Maybe not. But then I wonder: what about now? What if it wasn't a question of someone other than the author making a revision but the author himself, miraculously come back to life, having to respond to the various issues parents, teachers and children have raised about the book over the years? Would he even consider replacing that awful word? Would he apologize?

These might seem like silly questions, but they come to mind because, and this whole controversy reminds me that, over the holiday break I taped and watched the movie musical Oliver! Rather, I watched part of it. The character Fagin in that movie is such a broad stereotypical anti-Semitic caricature that I recoiled in horror and couldn't bring myself to keep watching after the first couple scenes with the Fagin character. I was shocked that as recently as 1968 a big-budget mainstream movie could get away with this flagrantly offensive portrayal. After I turned the movie off I got online and googled "Oliver Twist + Dickens + anti-Semitic" and spent about a half-hour reading some fascinating literary history having to do with a great author, a great novel and offensive epithets.

It seems that when Oliver Twist was first published in 1838, it drew almost immediate protests about the Fagin character from England's Jewish community and supportive progressives. Fagin is a lowlife London thief, a fence, a miser, and an exploiter of orphaned homeless children whom he employs as pickpockets. He is described as "disgusting" in the book, and in the movie musical he certainly is. He's dirty, with oily scraggly hair and beard, filthy clothes, etc., and just in case you don't get the point the actor Ron Moody invests him with a Yiddish accent during the song-and-dance numbers (though strangely not in dialogue). In the pages of Oliver Twist, this repulsive, greedy criminal is referred to sometimes by name but very often—over 250 times—as "the Jew." Hence the protests, by what was in those days in that place a very impoverished and oppressed community.

Now get this: Dickens responded! He was terribly upset at being called an anti-Semite. First he was defensive, writing a long letter that quite literally argued that some of his best friends were Jews. Then he got to work and revised the novel. In fact, he revised it time after time over the ensuing years, removing the anti-Jewish references and adjusting the Fagin depiction. He was at work on yet another revision at the time of his death.

Which version did I read in high school? I think it must have been the later revised one, for not only do I not recall Fagin being referred to as "the Jew," but I know no such novel would have been in my high school's curriculum. In fact I'm sure my mother would have objected and protested and demanded it be removed from the reading list, just as some parents now object to Huckleberry Finn. I somehow still knew that the Fagin character was a Jew, and that the portrayal was anti-Semitic even with all Dickens' clean-up work, and in fact it turns out that Oliver Twist is widely considered the most anti-Semitic work of literature in the English canon, with Fagin beating out even Shakespeare's Shylock for offensive stereotyping. The thing is, the book we read now, the edition we most all of us have read if we've read Oliver Twist, is not the original book as it was published. Nonetheless it somehow retains the original's essence literarily, culturally, politically, perhaps because it was the author himself who revisited and reworked it.

Let me be clear: I'm not drawing any direct comparison between the Twain book and the Dickens, or the words they utilized, what they meant and mean, and certainly not between Fagin, a vile character, and Jim, a fine one. Or for that matter between the writers and what they were trying to do. The one just reminded me of my recent brush up against the other. There's a whole other tangent, too, that I won't go off on now but might some other time. It made me doubly sad to have to turn off Oliver! because I so love musicals and I was so enjoying this one. "Food, Glorious Food," "Where Is Love," "As Long as He Needs Me," and many other great numbers. All destroyed, perverted by the Fagin nastiness. Stymied from enjoying it, I got to thinking about the musical theater, which arose in this country about a hundred years ago and might be fairly said to be a Black/Jewish/gay art form, and how it has been used and abused, its delights and offenses over the years. As I say, perhaps for another day.