Cleaning up Huck Finn

Detail of a cover from *The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn*

Detail of a cover from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Last week the canon of American letters was re-written when Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn had the word ‘nigger’ replaced with ‘slave’. According to a New York Times article, the “n-word” is used 200 times throughout the book though it “was a common racial epithet in the antebellum South, used by Twain as part of his characters’ vernacular speech and as a reflection of mid-19th-century social attitudes along the Mississippi River”.

The man behind the new edition is Professor Alan Gribben of Auburn University Montgomery, who defends his decision in its introduction. The Wall Street Journal reproduced sections of the introduction including Gribben’s insistence that “may applaud Twain’s ability as a prominent American literary realist to record the speech of a particular region during a specific historical era, but abusive racial insults that bear distinct connotations of permanent inferiority nonetheless repulse modern-day readers”. Gribben further believes that “significant number of school teachers, college instructors, and general readers will welcome… an edition… that spares the reader from a racial slur that never seems to lose its vitriol”.

It seems that his retrospective censoring has proved to be most unwelcome. Eleventh-grade school teacher Hetert-Qebu Walters wrote in the Huffington Post “These edits are another form of censorship, seeking to gloss over the complexities of life during a horrific period in American history. It is important to acknowledge this historical moment for all that it was, as it still affects us today.”

Executive director of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum Cindy Lovell told Reuters “"We are not fans of changing Mark Twain’s words. They have stood the test of time. The book is an anti-racist book and to change the language changes the power of the book. He wrote to make us squirm and to poke us with a sharp stick.”

Publisher of the new edition (which fuses Twain’s Tom Sawyer) NewSouth Inc believes it’s all about starting debate. A post on their website states: “If the publication sparks good debate about how language impacts learning or about the nature of censorship or the way in which racial slurs exercise their baneful influence, then our mission in publishing this new edition of Twain’s works will be more emphatically fulfilled.” They also allude to Twain’s own quote that a classic is “a book which people praise and don’t read.”

Twain probably deserves the last laugh in the re-writing of his work though. He was known to use the bad language of his own era to great effect. He once said “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

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