Mark Twain, Lenny Bruce, Scrabble & Me
Posted January 7, 2011on:
As a writer, I try to throw in my name with Mark Twain whenever possible. OK, just in this blog post.
When I heard that Twain wrote an autobiography that he would not allowed published until 100 years after his death, I was pretty excited. This had to be good if he wanted to hide it for a century. He must have dished a lot about the people of his time.
When it came in at the La Crosse Public Library, I was overwhelmed. Maybe it was because a bunch of my requests came in at the same time, but I gave up after thumbing through it. There were a couple hundred pages just in the introduction, explaining how Twain had dictated a lot of it and had not gone through it to finalize it.
Now I find the real controversy came this week when it was announced that a new version of his classics, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn combined that has been sanitized, taking out the N-word, which appears 219 in Huck Finn and four times in Tom Sawyer.
Auburn University English Professor and Twain Scholar Alan Gribben suggested the change, saying, “It’s such a shame that one word should be a barrier between a marvelous reading experience and a lot of readers.”
Another Twain expert, English Professor Tom Quirk, disagreed, saying most Twain scholars are opposed to it. “I’m a bit puzzled both that Alan would be doing this, and, on the other hand, I don’t quite know what all the stir is about with people who don’t approve of it.” http://www.columbiatribune.com/news/2011/jan/05/proposed-twain-changes-stir-up-controversy/
He said those who want the word removed might be missing the point. “Twain used the N-word with a certain kind of satirical skill and person, and he overuses it deliberately,” he said.
Nancy Pearl, who is such a library guru that she has a Library Action Doll made in her image, called it a “a mistake, because books are written at a particular time in history, and we need to read them with the knowledge that they’re written at those times. This is the way the world was then, and this is the way the world is now, when that kind of language isn’t acceptable.” http://lisnews.org/mark_twain_controversy_continues_and_nancy_pearl_weighs
I had to wrestle with this issue myself writing the memoirs of a World War II general that included the word, “Japs.” The politically correct in me was uncomfortable in using that word but in talking with his son we agreed it was appropriate for the time.
That brings me to comedian Lenny Bruce who was arrested and convicted of “obscenity” for using words in his stand-up act that I shall not repeat here. I suspect he could easily get away with using those same words today. He was sentenced to four years in a workhouse, but sadly, died prematurely in 1966, apparently of a drug overdose.
Obscenity does have its time and place, which change over time.
As I’ve played Scrabble the last few days I’ve thought about all this because some words are played that I would never use in other contexts. It’s amazing they are in the official Scrabble dictionary. I have never used the N-word on the board, but have used four letter words. When my son and his friend played Scrabble in high school, they gave bonus points for using these words.
I’ve mentioned this multiple times but my mom in the 1950s or 1960s once refused to play a seven-letter word that would have earned her 50 bonus points because it required playing an S before the word, h-i-t. Later in life she said she probably would have.
What Scrabble players will do for extra points is between our opponents and us.
Just like those in the world’s oldest profession, we’re just dickering over the price.