The Latest Word From Huck Finn

In a new edition of Twain's 'Huckleberry Finn,' the 'N-word' will be removed.

January 4, 2011, 4:15 PM

Jan. 4, 2011 -- "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" has engendered varying degrees of controversy ever since first being published in 1885. A number of libraries banned Mark Twain's masterpiece from their shelves upon its release and initial criticism homed in on its coarseness and crude language.

The Concord, Mass., public library condemned Huck as "trash and only suitable for the slums," reportedly eliciting from its author the gleeful reply "This will sell us another five thousand copies for sure!"

Of course, "Huckleberry Finn" survived the criticism and remains a towering achievement in American letters (and sold a few more than five thousand extra copies). And yet, although it is no longer the year 1885, some of the language still strikes some readers -- or at least some school boards -- as too coarse.

A new version of "Huckleberry Finn" is being published -- one that swaps the "N-word" which occurs 219 times throughout, for "slave." The NewSouth book also omits the word "Injun."

An introduction by Twain scholar and Auburn University professor Alan Gribben, advances the argument that the words have been scrubbed from his edition because some schools refuse to teach the unexpurgated text.

"This is not an effort to render 'Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn' colorblind," Gribben told Publisher's Weekly. "Race matters in these books. It's a matter of how you express that in the 21st century."

"... I was sought out by local teachers, and to a person they said we would love to teach '[Tom Sawyer] and Huckleberry Finn,' but we feel we can't do it anymore. In the new classroom, it's really not acceptable," Gribben said.

The fact that, in covering this story, this and many news outlets only printed the euphemism "N-word" is testament to the word's enduring baggage and power to shock and offend. But if a work of art like 'Huck Finn' is meant to be an accurate reflection of life as it is lived, whether we condone it or not, does censoring it diminish its effectiveness? A vocal group of critics certainly thinks so.

"A book like Professor Gribben has imagined," UCLA Professor Thomas Wortham told Publisher's Weekly, "doesn't challenge children [and their teachers] to ask, 'Why would a child like Huck use such reprehensible language?'"

Others contend that if it puts the book -- a classic by any definition -- in front of students who would otherwise never read it, Gribben's edition could be a valuable thing.

"[I]f this puts the book into the hands of kids who would not otherwise be allowed to read it due to forces beyond their control (overprotective parents and the school boards they frighten), then maybe we shouldn't be so quick to judge," writes Entertainment Weekly's Keith Staskiewicz.

Gribben for his part is weathering the criticism. "I'm hoping that people will welcome this new option, but I suspect that textual purists will be horrified," he told Publisher's Weekly.

"Already, one professor told me that he is very disappointed that I was involved in this."

One can only imagine what Twain himself would say.

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