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Thursday, January 6, 2011

Will bowdlerizing Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn attract more readers?

Weeks after it was first published in February 1885, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn endured its first censorship attempt when the Concord Public Library in Massachusetts banned it. Now, 125 years later, a new edition from NewSouth Books in Alabama re-engages the controversy by choosing to replace the book’s 219 usages of the word “nigger” with “slave” (and similarly replacing “Injun”). The edition is the brainchild of Twain scholar Alan Gribben who found audiences more accepting when he made these changes during public readings, as he explained this morning in an NPR interview with Studio 360’s Kurt Andersen:
As I had these experiences on my lecture tour it began to seem to me that we were handicapping teachers and younger readers by not making something available that simply sidestepped this whole controversy about this one word. . . In every case the audience would let out an almost audible sigh of relief as though I had resolved some problem that they came to the reading with. . . Just get the rid of the word and then you can start talking about the story and the beauties and the sharp social critique in these words.
News about the new edition has sparked a viral response that has made Huckleberry Finn a trending topic on Twitter this week. Most reactions are negative. In a poll taken by the The St. Louis Post-Dispatch book blog, 98% of the 618 respondents said the change should not be made. With  articles appearing this past week in The New York Daily News and The New York Times, Shelley Fisher Fishkin (editor of The Library of America’s The Mark Twain Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Work) is one of many scholars rallying to defend the original language, As she writes in the Times:
To understand how racism works in America it is necessary to understand how this word has been used to inflict pain on black people, challenge their humanity, and undercut their achievements. Leading black writers in America from Frederick Douglass to Ralph Ellison have understood this: to criticize racism effectively you have to make your reader hear how racists sound in all their offensive ugliness. When Malcolm X famously asked, “What do you call a black man with a Ph.D.?” and answered “Nigger,” he was testifying to the destructive power of this word and the world view it embodied.
Writer Ishmael Reed echoed Fishkin’s argument on The Wall Street Journal blog Speakeasy:
If one censors Mark Twain’s use of the word, why not censor the black writers who use the term? Whose characters use the term? My new book, Barack Obama and The Jim Crow Media, The Return of the Nigger Breakers, uses a term in the title that was employed in slave times to refer to workers whose specialty was breaking unruly slaves. One was Edward Covey to whom Frederick Douglass was sent to be broken. This account appears in “Life and Times of Frederick Douglass,” an 1881 classic which includes the word “nigger” at least ten times.
Like Douglass and other 19th-century authors, Twain used the words with which he was surrounded and to insist that he omit words is not only to put a gag on his characters but a gag on the Age.
Toni Morrison, in an essay included in The Mark Twain Anthology, acknowledges, “Reading ‘nigger’ hundreds of times embarrassed, bored, annoyed—but did not faze me.” And she concludes that, while readers have been arguing over what the novel is for a hundred years, “What it cannot be is dismissed. It is classic literature, which is to say it heaves, manifests and lasts.”

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: The Complete Mark Twain Library (7 volumes, plus a free book)


  1. What I find ironic about these efforts to censor "Finn" is that Twain used racist language as part of a passionate protest *against* racism. It is as if these people are focusing simply on the fact that this word was used at all, rather than paying any attention as to *how* it was used.

  2. Funny how some artists get called on it and some don't. I never heard any complaint when Dylan used the word in Huricane.

  3. While I understand Gribben's desire to encourage more young people to read the book, it goes without saying that he's going about it the wrong way. It's more or less a microcosm for exactly what's wrong with our culture: rather than take that which is offensive and place it in an appropriate critical context, we pretend it doesn't exist. It's the literary equivalent of placing the V-Chip* inside your child's television: instead of explaining the destructive nature of violence, parents simply deprive their children of it entirely. I could go on about how this extends to sex education as well, but one doesn't need to belabor the point.

    Instead of censoring a novel that illustrated the incredible racial injustice of the time, parents, teachers, and community leaders should teach the book rather than just hand it to their children or their students and expect them to understand it on their own. We all have to be taught to read. It's time, again, for our parents and teachers to take some responsibility when it comes to our young readers. Keeping them in the dark is a proven way to exacerbate societal problems.

    *Does this even exist anymore?


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