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Maybe "Gribbenized" will be added to fat dictionaries

Jan. 12, 2011 at 6:05 p.m.
Updated Jan. 11, 2011 at 7:12 p.m.

In 1885, after Mark Twain launched Huckleberry Finn and his raft on the Mississippi River, the committee in charge of the Concord public library unanimously banned the work from their shelves.

Reasons varied from lack of humor to lack of morals. One member sniffed, "All through its pages there is a systematic use of bad grammar and an employment of inelegant expressions."

A delighted Twain expressed his gratitude for the free advertisement with his customary biting manner in a letter to the library. In spite of the diligence of the guardians of humor, morals and grammar in Concord and other outposts of civilization, sales of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" continue unabated to present day. Indeed, Twain's most famous work has been the touchstone of others who actually bothered to read it, finding a moral and plot in it at the risk of banishment or shooting by the venerated author himself. Ernest Hemingway wrote that all American writing comes from it: "There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since."

Twain's irreverent skewering of 19th century society continues to rile modern-day Concord library committee members. On occasion, school districts all across this fruity plain refuse to allow English teachers to use the novel in the classroom. In one of the most profound ironies of all time, one John Wallace, an administrator at Mark Twain Intermediate School in Fairfax, Va., denounced Huckleberry Finn as "racist trash." He continued in this vein throughout his 28 years as a public school administrator. How does one respond to such towering ignorance?

For better or worse, our modern era is less concerned with morals and grammar. In fact, nowadays people make a pretty good living flouting them. George Carlin created a whole act on the Seven Words You Can Never Hear on Television. Today you can hear six out of seven on any given FOX comedy.

But that was before the N-word became even more obscene than the other seven words. If you want to know what word I'm referring to, just listen to any of the dozens of popular African-American rap singers. They use it quite liberally without threat of censure and even win accolades from the enlightened writers at Rolling Stone, People and Parade in the Sunday newspaper.

For more than a century, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" has weathered attacks from all sides. The Left accuses it of racism, the Right excoriates the immorality. And school administrators, who don't like taking phone calls from angry parents, warn teachers not to stir up trouble.

Today, NewSouth Books decided to fight fire with Liquid Paper by publishing its own version of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by replacing the N-word with "slave." Yeah, that'll salve the conscience. I hereby nominate NewSouth for the Thomas Bowdler Award. In the 19th century, Thomas Bowdler attempted to clean up the objectionable parts of Shakespeare.

His name survives as an entry in fat dictionaries as bowdlerize - to expurgate (as a book) by omitting or modifying parts considered vulgar.

The person responsible for this newest distortion is Thomas Gribben at Auburn University in Alabama - another rich source of irony.

Perhaps Gribbenized will join the lexicon of disreputable verbs.

It's not a Left/Right issue. It's a Right/Wrong issue.

Does the word make you uncomfortable, angry or upset because it denigrates the inherent humanity of all people? I should hope so.

That was precisely the point Mark Twain was trying to make. And it's WRONG To excise the very word that is causing the episodic uproar.

Patrick Hubbell is a Spanish teacher in the Victoria school district and lives in Victoria.

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