Censoring Mark Twain's 'n-words' is unacceptable: A new edition of Huckleberry Finn expunges its repeated use of 'nigger' for understandable reasons, but betrays a great anti-racist novel in the process
Mark Twain: 'The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter'
So, Mark Twain stays in the news even 100 years after his death. First, with the initial volume of his Autobiography, finally published in the form planned by the author. Second, with the controversy stirred up by a "new" edition of Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in which the offensive racial epithets "injun" and "nigger" are replaced by "Indian" and "slave" respectively.
Undoubtedly the use of the word "nigger" – surely the most inflammatory word in the English language – makes Huckleberry Finn a tricky novel to teach. The book has recently repeatedly been judged as unsuitable for schoolchildren to study in the US educational system – and one can fully understand the feelings of anger and humiliation that many African American children and parents feel at having such a word repeatedly spoken in the classroom (the word appears 219 times in Twain's book).
But that is not necessarily a reason for replacing it with a gentler (bowdlerised) term. Twain was undoubtedly anti-racist. Friends with African American educator Booker T Washington, he co-chaired the 1906 Silver Jubilee fundraiser at Carnegie Hall for the Tuskegee Institute – a school run by Washington in Alabama to further "the intellectual and moral and religious life of the [African American] people". He also personally helped fund one of Yale Law School's first African American students, explaining: "We have ground the manhood out of them [African Americans], and the shame is ours, not theirs, and we should pay for it." And his repeated use of that derogatory term in Huckleberry Finn is absolutely deliberate, ringing with irony. When Huck's father, poor and drunken white trash by any standard, learns that "a free nigger ... from Ohio; a mulatter, most as white as a white man ... a p'fessor in a college" is allowed to vote, he reports: "Well, that let me out ... I says I'll never vote agin ... [A]nd the country may rot for all me." It is very clear here whose racial side Twain is on. Similarly when Aunt Sally asks if anyone was hurt in a reported riverboat explosion, and Huck himself answers "No'm. Killed a nigger," she replies, "Well, it's lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt." The whole force of the passage lies in casual acceptance of the African American's dehumanised status, even by Huck, whose socially-inherited language and way of thinking stands firm despite all he has learnt in his journey down-river of the humanity, warmth and affection of the escaped slave Jim – the person who truly acts as a father to him.
Language counts here. As Twain himself said: "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning." I respect the motivation of Alan Gribben, the senior Twain scholar who is responsible for the new edition, and who wishes to bring the book back into easy classroom use, believing "that a significant number of school teachers, college instructors, and general readers will welcome the option of an edition of Twain's ... novels that spares the reader from a racial slur that never seems to lose its vitriol."
But it's exactly that vitriol and its unacceptable nature that Twain intended to capture in the book as it stands. Perhaps this is not a book for younger readers. Perhaps it is a book that needs careful handling by teachers at high school and even university level as they put it in its larger discursive context, explain how the irony works, and the enormous harm that racist language can do. But to tamper with the author's words because of the sensibilities of present-day readers is unacceptable. The minute you do this, the minute this stops being the book that Twain wrote.
(CNN) -- Let's start this conversation from the beginning: Censorship is almost always wrong. As a scholar, I can't condone the suppression of ideas, and I am typically against it. Now that I've said what I am supposed to say, let's get down to the nitty-gritty.
A segment of the scholarly community is up in arms after Alan Gribben, a professor of English at Auburn University, did the unthinkable. Gribben, in conjunction with NewSouth Books, announced plans to release another edition of the famous book "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" without the N-word, which is used 219 times in the book.
Instead, Gribben -- who is the book's editor -- and the publisher have decided to replace the N-word with the word "slave."
Let's be clear, Gribben's actions do not represent censorship, at least not in its purest form.
It's not as if Gribben is asking that all original copies of the text be burned. He is not following the lead of the Chinese government and attempting to block websites that make reference to the book. He is not requesting the complete omission or deletion of ideas shared in the book.
He is expanding the freedom of teachers and parents to choose a version of the book that they might find more acceptable for children of a certain age.
The notion that any form of filtering, in any context, for any age group, is unethical is not only exceedingly idealistic, it is disconnected from reality. No matter how cherished a film or song might be, work presented to students in public school is going to be screened to determine whether it matches the age group for which the material is being presented.
Making a more appropriate version of Mark Twain's novel available to the public, while certainly a move to maximize profits, opens the door for the book to be enjoyed in schools that are not interested in traumatizing students in order to educate them.
Long before I became a scholar, I was a black teenage boy. At that time, I would never have enjoyed hearing my English teacher repeat the N-word 219 times out loud in front of a class full of white students. I also would have wondered why African-Americans are the only ethnic group forced to read "classic" literature that uses such derogatory language toward us in a disturbingly repetitive way.
I would have found such a presentation to be only a hurtful and highly inefficient way for me to understand slavery, and I probably would have been teased.
Yes, our nation needs an honest conversation on race. That conversation shouldn't start and end with "Huckleberry Finn." In fact, the urgency with which some defend the use of this book as a tool for teaching racial history reflects our desperate and unfulfilled need to address the atrocities of slavery.
Although the brilliance of the Mark Twain novel must be acknowledged, students can and should be engaged in constructive ways to learn what happened to their ancestors without being subjected to racial slurs in the process. Similar to the way it was inappropriate last year for a teacher in North Carolina to force students to re-enact slavery in a cotton field, I don't need to hear the N-word 219 times to know that it is hurtful.
After being a black teen, I became a parent, so I must make this final point:
While we may be seeking to support fundamental American freedoms by ensuring that the Mark Twain book is available in its rawest form, it is ultimately incorrect for us to simultaneously steal the freedom of parents to decide that the language of the book is not appropriate for their children.
One freedom deserves another, so the freedom of the artist to express himself/herself in an offensive way should be supplemented by our right to reject that form of expression within the confines of a public school. By creating an alternative version of this brilliant text, Gribben has opened the door for millions of children to experience the beauty of this book without the much-celebrated racial degradation. Freedom ultimately means having options.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Boyce Watkins.
A new edition of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is causing controversy because of the removal of a racially offensive word.
Twain scholar Alan Gribben says the use of the word "nigger" had prompted many US schools to stop teaching the classic. In his edition, Professor Gribben replaces the word with "slave" and also changes "injun" to "Indian". But the publisher says hundreds of people have complained about the edits. First published in 1884, Huckleberry Finn is considered one of the great American novels. While telling the story of a boy's journey down the Mississippi River some time between 1835 and 1845, the novel satirises Southern attitudes on race and slavery.
History of controversy
"The book is an anti-racist book and to change the language changes the power of the book," said Cindy Lovell, executive director of The Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum in Hannibal, Missouri. "He wrote to make us squirm and to poke us with a sharp stick. That was the purpose," she told Reuters news agency. The novel has often been criticised for its language and characterisations and it is reported to be the fourth most banned book in US schools. The "N-word" appears 219 times in the story.
Professor Gribben, who teaches English at Auburn University Montgomery in Alabama, said he had given many public readings of Twain's books - and that when he replaced the word with "slave", audiences were more comfortable. There is no way to 'clean up' Twain without doing irreparable harm to the truth of his work” He said he wanted more people, especially younger people, to be encouraged to read the novel. "It's such a shame that one word should be a barrier between a marvellous reading experience and a lot of readers," he said. But the idea has been condemned by other scholars, teachers, writers and rights activists. "Trying to erase the word from our culture is profoundly, profoundly wrong," said Randall Kennedy, a Harvard Law School professor.
Dr Sarah Churchwell, a lecturer on American literature, told the BBC that it made a mockery of the story. "It's about a boy growing up a racist in a racist society who learns to reject that racism, and it makes no sense if the book isn't racist," she told BBC World Service's Newshour programme. "You can't make the history of racism in America go away."
Power of words
Twain himself was very particular about his words. He is quoted as saying that "the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter". And when a printer made punctuation changes to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Twain wrote later that he had "given orders for the typesetter to be shot without giving him time to pray".
The publisher of this new edition of Huckleberry Finn, New South Books, says dozens of people have telephoned to complain and hundreds have sent e-mails. The press have also weighed in to the debate, generally in defence of the original version. "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," the New York Times said in an editorial. "There is no way to 'clean up' Twain without doing irreparable harm to the truth of his work."
In the UK, an editorial in The Times called the new edition "a well-intentioned act of cultural vandalism and obscurantism that constricts rather than expands the life of the mind".
The sanitised version will be published on 15 February, in a joint reissue with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which also has the offensive epithets replaced.
Don't censor Mark Twain's N word
By LEONARD PITTS JR.
By LEONARD PITTS JR.
It is, perhaps, the seminal moment in American literature.
Young Huck Finn, trying to get right with God and save his soul from a forever of fire, sits there with the freshly written note in hand. “Miss Watson,” it says, “your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send.”
Huck knows it is a sin to steal and he is whipped by guilt for the role he has played in helping the slave Jim steal himself from a poor old woman who never did Huck any harm. But see, Jim has become Huck’s friend, has sacrificed for him, worried about him, laughed and sung with him, depended upon him. So what, really, is the right thing to do?
“I was a-trembling,” says Huck, “because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell’ — and tore it up.”
When NewSouth Books releases its new version of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn next month, that revelatory moment will contain one troubling change. Publisher’s Weekly reported last week that in this edition, edited by Twain scholar Alan Gribben of Auburn University, all 219 occurrences of the so-called N-word will be cut. Huck’s note will now call Jim a “runaway slave.” Twain’s use of the word “Injun” will also be struck.
Gribben brings good intentions to this act of literary graffiti, this attempt to impose political correctness upon the most politically incorrect of American authors. He told PW that many teachers feel they can’t use the book in their classrooms because children simply cannot get past that incendiary word. “My daughter,” he said, “went to a magnet school and one of her best friends was an African-American girl. She loathed the book, could barely read it.”
But while Gribben’s intentions are good, his fix is profoundly wrong. There are several reasons why.
In the first place, any work of art represents a series of conscious choices on the part of the artist — what color to paint, what note to play, what word to use — in that artist’s attempt to share what is in his or her soul. The audience is free to accept or reject those choices; it is emphatically not free to substitute its own.
In the second place, it is never a good idea to sugarcoat the past. The past is what it is, immutable and non-negotiable. Even a cursory glance at the historical record will show that Twain’s use of the reprehensible word was an accurate reflection of that era.
So it would be more useful to have any new edition offer students context and challenge them to ask hard questions: Why did Twain choose that word? What kind of country must this have been that it was so ubiquitous? How hardy is the weed of self-loathing that many black people rationalize and justify its use, even now?
I mean, has the black girl Gribben mentions never heard of Chris Rock or Snoop Dogg?
Finally, and in the third place, it is troubling to think the state of reading comprehension in this country has become this wretched, that we have tweeted, PlayStationed and Fox Newsed so much of our intellectual capacity away that not only can our children not divine the nuances of a masterpiece, but that we will now protect them from having to even try.
Huck Finn is a funny, subversive story about a runaway white boy who comes to locate the humanity in a runaway black man and, in the process, vindicates his own. It has always, until now, been regarded as a timeless tale.
But that was before America became an intellectual backwater that would deem it necessary to censor its most celebrated author.
The one consolation is that somewhere, Mark Twain is laughing his head off.