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  • Mark Twain needs no help from me defending himself. But, as he's currently occupied elsewhere, I'm happy to add my voice to what I hope is becoming a chorus. Like many well-intentioned ideas, the upcoming version of "Huckleberry Finn" that has been cleansed of the N-word only succeeds in making matters worse. Twain was the Elmore Leonard of his day. His ear for dialogue was accurate and phenomenal. Huck is very much a creature of his time, with all its attendant prejudices. Unless he is portrayed as such, his decision not to send the letter denouncing Jim is robbed of all of its moral grandeur and importance. There have been worse travesties: the decision by Demi Moore's producers to give the latest film version of "The Scarlet Letter" a happy ending comes to mind.

    Listen. There are always going to be people among us prepared to be outraged at the drop of a hat or a kiss or a syllable. They're part of the price of admission to life's parade. And we are always going to have teachers who don't know or care how to teach a book correctly. When I was in 9th grade, we read "Candide" aloud in English class. It's undeniably a great work of literature, and, just as undeniably, viciously anti-Semitic. Unlike Twain, Voltaire wasn't using the conventions of anti-Semitism to turn them on their heads later on. He hated Jews, end of story. It would have taken our teacher all of 20 seconds to say before launching into the reading: "When he was a young man, Voltaire was cheated out of a considerable amount of money by several Jewish merchants. This poisoned his mind against the Jewish people for the rest of his life. It's not an admirable quality, but even great writers are human and fallible, too." That would have prevented so many instances of lowered heads, sets of eyes refusing to meet and embarrassed silences.

    Would-be bowdlerizers: we know you mean well but you do not eliminate racism by pretending it never existed. Twain isn't here to tell you, so I will: Huck off, y'all!
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