Don’t Censor Huck Finn

Next month, an updated, combined edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer will be published by NewSouth Books, minus two-hundred-plus total instances of the “n-word” and several other racial slurs used at the time.

According to Twain scholar Alan Gribben, English professor and editor of the new release, as reported by Publisher’s Weekly, “This is not an effort to render Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn colorblind. Race matters in these books. It’s a matter of how you express that in the 21st century.”

But Gribben’s choice of expression (mainly changing the “n-word” to “slave”) hobbles the sheer force of that word, a word so powerful many of us (myself included) refuse to speak or write in its entirety.

I can understand why Gribben, in his many years as a teacher in Alabama, found it more comfortable (for himself?) to replace the offensive expressions when he read the works aloud to his students. I’ve seen people flinch when the n-word spits from someone’s mouth like snake venom. As a Unitarian Jew, I’ve had my share of epithet-bombs lobbed my way, but I have no way of understanding how that particular word might feel to a young African-American reader. But whitewashing the ugly from America’s past is doing all of us a greater disservice.

Because if we selectively edit our nation’s history, how will generations after us remember? Could we just as easily remove references to Japanese internment camps in breathtaking works like David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars and Jane Smiley’s Private Life? Indian massacres? The shame of the 1921 Tulsa race riots? Lynchings? Matthew Shepard and other young men murdered for being gay? Could some future “scholar” come along and hack up Lolita because some may find the themes of pedophilia too offensive? Or The Help because of its racial overtones? The Godfather because some complain of its ethnic stereotypes?

Where will it end?

And why are we altering an artist’s original intent? That’s what I find wrong about censorship. Twain expressed the manner and mannerisms of a particular slice of America, told through the eyes of a particular American boy. (Make that two American boys.) The uneducated and ignorant people in the universe of Twain’s “boy adventures” used the “n-word” in reference to anyone of African descent, whether they were enslaved or free. (Therefore “slave” is, while true in some cases, not a 1:1 replacement for the ugly epithet.) If this book is to be taught in school (and many have banned or challenged it, as early as one year following its 1884 publication date to 1998 in Tempe, Arizona), it is to be taught in its historical context and in a greater discussion of racial conflict in America. Upper high school and certainly college students are mature and intelligent enough not to condemn an entire, important work because of the one or two words that people used at the time. I think they’re smart enough to know that those who use that word are showing their own ugliness.

Yet Gribben sees it from the opposite angle. Local teachers wanted to teach both Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, but felt they couldn’t. “In the new classroom,” he said, “it’s really not acceptable.” He also said that for “…a single word to form a barrier, it seems such an unnecessary state of affairs.”

You can kill the word, but you can’t kill the concept, Professor Gribben.

Count me among the “textural purists” whom Gribben believe will be “horrified” by this act of censorship. We are all entitled to know the history of our culture – the good, the bad, and especially the ugly – as told by the road map of our great literature.

19 thoughts on “Don’t Censor Huck Finn

  1. Doug says:

    Well that pretty much wraps it up.

    It’s a hard call. An uncomfortable call. But with all that, it’s easy.

    If you begin to edit history in this heavy handed manner, other hard truths will be sure to soon cutler the cutting room floor. And the future will screen the past with a knowing wink, or unknowing nod. Either way, this ain’t healthy.

    I thought the victors wrote history. Didn’t we win?


  2. daniebob says:

    I completely agree with your post. By removing all instances of the n-word from a text in which it was historically accurate for the characters to use that word you’re removing the opportunity to teach people why that word is so horrible. You’re effectively saying that the people who are reading that particular text are too stupid to understand why the word was used back then, what it means to use it now, and why it is completely unacceptable for anyone to use it in any connotation today.

    I just hope that they note the changes prominently on the covers when they do publish these altered versions of historically important works. That way I can be sure to avoid supporting ignorance when I buy my nieces and nephews their own copies of these books.

  3. JenD says:

    I went to a very progressive high school and I can remember my teachers and us students taking turns reading passages out loud of many, many controversial books. Whenever a student felt uncomfortable saying certain words in mixed company (which, truth be told, they were probably pretty well comfortable using within the confines of their friends but not in a classroom filled with people of every color plus one authority figure), the teachers would explain to us how important it is to learn these words in the context with which they were written so that we can fully understand what it means to be part of the flow of humanity, to see who we once were and how far we’ve come socially. I think that’s worthy of a little squeamishness.

    This business about editing our past history, including past works of literature and art, is downright Orwellian and should not be done. I hope no one buys this hacked up piece of crap. It’s like slapping some shorts on Michelangelo’s David just because some prude thinks it’s icky to see a carved wee-wee.

  4. Ayeball Dan says:

    Terrific post. We need more voices on this immediately! It is a travesty that such a hack-job is allowed to take place in this day and age (especially within a year of his long-awaited autobiography being published).
    However, we can’t go around saying ‘n-word’ when we mean nigger in our arguments for artistic preservation. We just can’t do that if we’re going to teach our kids that the context, not the word itself is what causes so much harm.
    Just a thought.

      • JenD says:

        I think it’s a matter of perspective and usage. Where I grew up in the inner city, it wasn’t an uncommonly used slur (sadly), but it also wasn’t uncommon for a white person to stand up against the offender and say, “Hey, don’t call so-and-so a nigger!” Who does that anymore? It’s like we’re all afraid of a word. It’s just a word! Like “fuck” or “daffodils”. (hope I did not offend anyone, but I wanted to make a point)

  5. laurieboris says:

    I once called a couple guys out for saying it…they looked at me like I had three heads. Won’t stop me from doing it again. Why is it that I can say “fuck” but I can’t say the n-word? Cultural training? George Carlin would have smacked me in the ass.

    • JenD says:

      I think it is cultural conditioning, which, I think, can’t be helped to a certain extent because of how pervasively certain ideas are jammed into us (and that’s only if you watch the news). I think that’s why Carlin had such marvelous “shock value” in public, while the rest of the planet probably agreed with him in private.

      • Ayeball Dan says:

        I sympathize with you, Laurie but more importantly, I commend you on being so very right about Mr. Carlin’s treatment of your ass. 🙂 JenD is right: it is cultural conditioning. Which would be all well and good if it wasn’t that same cultural conditioning that prevents the reading of the book in schools these days – and so precisely what leads publishers to think that it’s acceptable (and maybe even noble) to replace nigger with slave. In conclusion, cultural conditioning is a poor excuse, especially when we need to stand up (as we now do on this issue). You right beautifully by the way, Laurie, so I find it hard to believe that you wouldn’t just kill to sink your teeth into an out-loud reading of the ORIGINAL Huck Finn; ‘n-words'(!) and all! I’m enticed today to get a loudspeaker set-up outside my apartment and bombard the neighbourhood with some of the most beautiful prose ever written in English; un-censored.

  6. laurieboris says:

    Since I was raised in a PC to the tenth degree household, no wonder I’m squeamish about saying certain things. We could swear, but we couldn’t make ethnic slurs. Once I called my older brother a “hole,” and my father overheard. He called me over and said something like, “We don’t use words like that in this house.” I was confused. It wasn’t like I said “asshole.” I told him so. He excused me, because he thought I’d said “Pole.” (Which was even more confusing, because he’s half Polish.)

    • JenD says:

      Hahaha! That’s hilarious. I grew up in the LEAST PC environment, always arguing with my family about what a bunch of racist xenophobes they were. Probably explains why my dukes are always up and ready for a fight.

  7. Joanna says:

    Any teacher who isn’t comfortable reading a passage from Huck Finn that includes the N-word should have a chat with those who are. Unfortunately, by the time kids reach high school or college, they’ve been exposed to far worse (IMHO) “word bombs” on TV, in movies, and for some, in their own homes and neighborhoods. Why should this word be singled out as “unacceptable” or “unutterable” in classrooms, which after all, are for expanding minds, not limiting exposure to great literature and its historical context.

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