Mark Twain, Hugh Hefner and Political Correctness

OK. I’ll admit it. I have a tough time getting my shorts in a knot about the controversy over whether it is correct to offer a Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays verbal high-five to friends, colleagues and people who are blocking the queue in the express line by plunking down more than 12 items.

But then I celebrate Festivus. Go figure.

But I do have some reservations about the political correctness connected to situations involving Mark Twain and Hugh Hefner.

First Twain. It seems that his classic books — “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and the “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” — are getting a rewrite to eliminate some objectionable words and descriptions. As usual on Fridays, I’ll let others do the heavy lifting and writing; here’s from a NYT editorial “That’s Not Twain“:

Next month, you will be able to buy the single- volume NewSouth Edition of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” edited by Professor Alan Gribben of Auburn University at Montgomery. It differs from other editions of those books because Mr. Gribben has turned the word “nigger” — as used by Tom and Huck — into “slave.” Mr. Gribben has also changed “Injun” to Indian.

Mr. Gribben says he wants to make these American classics readable again — for young readers and for anyone who is hurt by the use of an epithet that would have been ubiquitous in Missouri in the 1830s and 1840s, which is when both books are set. He says he discovered how much Twain’s language offended readers when he began giving talks about “Tom Sawyer” all across Alabama in 2009. He has also acknowledged that what he calls “textual purists” will be horrified by his sanitized versions of the two classics.

We are horrified, and we think most readers, textual purists or not, will be horrified too. The trouble isn’t merely adulterating Twain’s text. It’s also adulterating social, economic and linguistic history. Substituting the word “slave” makes it sound as though all the offense lies in the “n-word” and has nothing to do with the institution of slavery. Worse, it suggests that understanding the truth of the past corrupts modern readers, when, in fact, this new edition is busy corrupting the past.

When “Huckleberry Finn” was published, Mark Twain appended a note on his effort to reproduce “painstakingly” the dialects in the book, including several backwoods dialects and “the Missouri negro dialect.” What makes “Huckleberry Finn” so important in American literature isn’t just the story, it’s the richness, the detail, the unprecedented accuracy of its spoken language. There is no way to “clean up” Twain without doing irreparable harm to the truth of his work.

I understand that words matter — and they can be hurtful. And just because we still have plenty of freedoms in this country doesn’t mean that we can or should do or say what we want, whenever we want.

In fact, I agree with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who opined that you can’t jump up in a crowded theater and shout “Asshat” even after you’ve sat through nine or 10 previews before the feature starts. Or something along those lines.

Still, when we start rewriting Twain — and other great works of literature — we’re heading down a slippery slope.  Just sayin’.

An then there is Hef. I’ll admit that I think it is creepy for a guy his age to be announcing his engagement to a former Playboy Playmate some 60 years his junior. Yet it appears to be politically incorrect for the lamestream media — particularly the TV Talking Heads — a to take a critical view of this.

Well, it appears that a real journalist, Timothy Egan, agrees with your humble pajama-clad citizen journalist on this one. Here’s from his opinion article in the NYT, “Last Call at the Bunny Roundup“:

Let’s just get this out of the way before the new year is all backed up with highly consequential events of much greater urgency: Hugh Hefner is repulsive.

There. I feel guilty already violating a resolution to be less snarky and judgmental in 2011. But while on a sugar high as I vow to diet, I might as well take another bite: Hugh Hefner is reptilian and should never be looked upon as a role model for anything except how not to grow old.

I don’t mind if an octogenarian sits around all day in his jammies while waiting for his meds to kick in. Nursing homes are full of such people, most of them far more productive than Hefner.

Nor do I care that Hefner is still trying to shape the legacy of his pathetic Playboy brand — weird, plastic-bodied women who giggle at non sequiturs from aging paramours in hygienically challenged hot tubs.

Hugh Hefner and Crystal Harris, his new fiancée.Matt Sayles/Associated Press Hugh Hefner and Crystal Harris, his new fiancée.

What bothers me about Hefner — and this is a visceral reaction, nothing I’ve fully intellectualized, mind you — is that some people think it’s cute, and even kind of cool that an 84-year-old man just announced his engagement to a 24-year-old Playmate. The media response has been fawning, bordering on cloy, and cries out for a rebuttal.

And more:

The Beast and Politico both published flattering features on the Playboy founder’s January-December romance.

“He is a down home, likeable, and in a sense very ordinary person,” wrote Politico. Yes, ordinary, if you spend your life in slippers with a harem younger than your grandchildren. Why is Muammar el-Qaddafi considered a crackpot for keeping a voluptuous Ukrainian nurse by his side at all times, but when Hefner does a somewhat similar thing he’s called ordinary?

Take it from Keith Richards, no stranger to aging decadence. “We’ve worked the lowest pimps to the highest,” he writes in “Life,” his best-selling memoir. “The highest being Hefner, a pimp nonetheless.”

Underlying all of the media flattery is a theme that aging is horrible unless it’s spent in moneyed defiance of the inevitable.

I’m lucky to count among my friends an 80-year-old man who joins us every year on a ski trip to the Wasatch Range in Utah. He skis the double-diamonds, and he never complains. He’s been married for at least 50 years, and seems more full of life now than ever before. He’s my role model.

Sean Connery is also 80, and has been married to a woman his age for 35 years. Ten years ago, when Connery was just about to turn 70, People magazine named him the sexiest man of the century. Bravo!

Has Diane Keaton, at age 65, ever projected more authenticity and sexiness? Did Paul Newman do anything but grow in stature as he nurtured a long marriage, and a charitable foundation that helped thousands? Is 88-year-old Betty White a joy for what she is, rather than a pretend version of an old babe?

Hefner is the opposite, a spirit-curdling spectacle as he parades his trophies out for approval. But don’t take it from me. I asked my daughter, who is about the same age as Hefner’s fiancée, what she thought of the engagement. She hadn’t heard much about it, so I showed her a picture of the pair. Her response: Ewww!

Wonder what Mark Twain would have thought about all this?

He most likely would have said something more elegant and memorable than “ewww” — even at the risk of being politically incorrect.

Just sayin.’


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