Don’t edit ‘timeless literature’
Sam Bari’s column (Jan. 13) about the bowdlerization of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” reminded me of something I experienced as the librarian at the Rhode Island Training School. When we had lock downs and the kids couldn’t go to class, we would go to them. I brought along a few books to read to them, which usually calmed them down.
One day I brought along a collection of William Faulkner short stories, which included “A Rose for Emily.” They liked the macabre so I began reading it. I had forgotten that the guests of Miss Greison are ushered into the living room by her “elderly negro” servant.
When I uttered the word “negro,” some of their heads shot up in astonishment and disbelief. I stopped reading and explained that it was written during a period of time when the word was almost universally used in the United States and Faulkner was from Mississippi and was being faithful to his time. They had no problem with my explanation and actually enjoyed the rest of the story, although they may have been waiting for another “negro” line.
It also reminds me of the brouhaha over “Little Black Sambo” a little while ago. I think that I first heard the story in the second grade – 1947 – and Sambo was a curlyheaded black kid. We now know that the original story was set in India and Sambo was Indian.
My memory of Sambo was, and still is, of this clever little kid who fooled the tiger and who just happened to be black. Even after I learned of prejudice and worse – Emmett Till would be my age if he had not been murdered – Little Black Sambo remained a story about a smart little boy who faced danger and overcame it.
Where does this all lead? I think that most readers of Mark Twain will discover that Huck is a better-thanaverage human being and “N-word” Jim is the noblest human being in the book. We don’t need to edit timeless literature.