Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a classic by most any measure—T.S. Eliot called it a masterpiece, and Ernest Hemingway pronounced it the source of “all modern American literature.” Yet, for decades, it has been disappearing from grade school curricula across the country, relegated to optional reading lists, or banned outright, appearing again and again on lists of the nation’s most challenged books, and all for its repeated use of a single, singularly offensive word: “nigger.”
Twain himself defined a “classic” as “a book which people praise and don’t read.” Rather than see Twain’s most important work succumb to that fate, Twain scholar Alan Gribben and NewSouth Books plan to release a version ofHuckleberry Finn, in a single volume with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, that does away with the “n” word (as well as the “in” word, “Injun”) by replacing it with the word “slave.”
“This is not an effort to render Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn colorblind,” said Gribben, speaking from his office at Auburn University at Montgomery, where he’s spent most of the past 20 years heading the English department. “Race matters in these books. It’s a matter of how you express that in the 21st century.”
I’ve just taken a deep breath, but the idea of changing Mark Twain’s words, whether they are politically correct or not, or even if they are antiquated to our modern times, is so fucking obnoxious I have the sudden urge to punch someone in the face. Namely, Alan Gribben and anyone who works for NewSouth Books.
Instead of scrubbing the debate over the meaning of language and it’s evolution, wouldn’t teachers, students and parents alike benefit from having that discussion? This, however, is nothing new for Mark Twain’s most famous novel.
“Controversy surrounding the book’s use of language is nothing new. A public library in Massachusetts banned the book shortly after its publication in 1884 because of its “tawdry subject matter” and “the coarse, ignorant language in which it was narrated.” And the book has been censored and banned many times since,” writes Rob Anderson.
Prohibition hasn’t really worked when it came to alcohol or illicit drugs and it certainly doesn’t work with literature. Maybe that makes me a “textual purist,” as Gibbens puts it, but certain things should be sacred.
Of course, the other way to look at this, is that if many schools aren’t allowed to read the book because of the “n word” and they go on to later discover the original, then I suppose I can forgive the sins of both man and book publisher alike.