Is Twain Spinning in His Grave?

Much has been written about the politically correct version of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which will be published next month by NewSouth Books.  Among other changes, it deletes the “n-word” and replaces it with “slave.”  The publisher believes that the word is so upsetting and insulting, many people avoid the classic.  They believe the book will gain a wider readership by offering this new version.

Some scholars have argued that by sanitizing the book, Twain’s message will be diluted.  Both sides have valid points, and I’m not going to get into the potency of the n-word here.  What concerns me are the rights of the author.  Should a work of art be revised years later without the author’s consent?  Apparently Samuel Clemens was pretty clear about how he wanted his works preserved after his death.  But do an author’s wishes become moot after death?  Should they?

Dr. Albert C. Barnes assembled a world class art collection that includes a number of Impressionist masterpieces.  He established the Barnes Foundation, where the collection is displayed, and specified that it would remain in its original building on a suburban street in Lower Merion, PA, just outside of Philadelphia, and that the artworks would forever be displayed the way he wanted.  Years after his death, financial troubles spurred a legal battle to move the collection into Center City Philadelphia, where it would be more accessible to the public.  It was ultimately decided that the collection would relocate to a new building near Philadelphia’s other major museums. Dr. Barnes would not have approved.

Undoubtedly more people will now be able to see the Barnes collection, just as more teachers will be comfortable assigning Huckleberry Finn to their students.  But neither Dr. Barnes nor Samuel Clemens wanted it that way.  When a person stipulates something in his will, can individuals later disregard those directives for what is perceived to be a greater good? Dr. Barnes and Mr. Clemens might be commiserating in the hereafter.

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