January 6, 2011


I read something yesterday that cleft my brain in twain (no pun intended) - the Mark Twain classic Huckleberry Finn is being reissued...and edited. The target of the editors' red pens? Rampant use of the "n-word." And more:

A new US edition of Mark Twain's classic novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is to be published with a notable language alteration: all instances of the offensive racial term [term removed] are to be expunged.

The word occurs more than 200 times in Huckleberry Finn, first published in 1884, and its 1876 precursor, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which tell the story of the boys' adventures along the Mississippi river in the mid-19th century. In the new edition, the word will be replaced in each instance by "slave". The word "injun" will also be replaced in the text.

The new edition's Alabama-based publisher, NewSouth books, says the development is a "bold move compassionately advocated" by the book's editor, Twain scholar Dr Alan Gribben of Auburn University, Montgomery. It will have the effect, the publisher claims, of replacing "two hurtful epithets" in order to "counter the 'pre-emptive censorship' that Dr Gribben observes has caused these important works of literature to fall off curriculum lists worldwide."

Now, I realize that I edited that piece to delete the offensive word. But that's because I don't like the word, have never said it, and it's my blog. But is it right to change an accepted - even classic - piece of literature with nearly unsurpassed importance in the American culture because a word is now considered offensive? Does it not change the work itself? Or is that acceptable if the publisher's motives - to head off censorship and get the book re-entered in school curricula - are as noble as they say?

What do you think - good move or defacing a classic?

Posted by Chris at January 6, 2011 6:21 AM

I teach college lit classes (and am working towards my PhD in American Lit), so this particularly annoys me. I don't care so much that it's a classic (though that's why it gets this much attention, of course), but I do care that it's defacing a piece of history. Does leaving or removing the "n" word change what happens in the story? Maybe not. But it does change the feel of the story. Tom and Huck are kids so caught up in their own youths that they don't realize what's going on around them. Their use of the "n" word is an example of that, and of the time that they live in.

I think to remove what might cause censorship is essentially bowing to the censorship. Instead, we should be convincing people that the censorship is unwarranted and inappropriate (if not unconstitutional) altogether.

On Twitter, Stephen Colbert "applauded" the change and then asked when they would get on that "Mody D-" monstrosity. That sentiment (and the accompanying sarcasm) feels right to me.

Posted by: Catherine at January 6, 2011 7:33 AM

I am worried that Stephen Colbert's sarcasm may be lost on those who are too stupid to know he is joking. It's all about context and timing. The use of the words "fit" Huck Finn. It was the "language" of the day. They were not saying it to be bad, it was what people said.

Posted by: Debbie at January 6, 2011 8:00 AM

I read about this yesterday and don't like the change at all either. It changes the relationship between Huck and Jim. And at what point in the future would these editors stop changing words they find offensive? What words might be next?

Posted by: Darren at January 6, 2011 8:00 AM

I agree with the other comments. My biggest beef, though is that updating a book like this to make it more 'PC' is denying history. Part of the impact of this book IS the use of terms that were once common but now offensive, like the n-word. The shock of it helps highlight the terrible lives of slaves and the inequalities that we still feel the reverberations from today.

By removing the offensive words, they are taking away the opportunity for an important teachable moment. It's asinine.

Posted by: Tara at January 6, 2011 8:12 AM

What Tara said!

Posted by: Alison at January 6, 2011 8:14 AM

I can't add anything to what the commenters above have said, so I'll just say that I agree that it is defacing a classic!

Posted by: Elizabeth at January 6, 2011 8:41 AM

Ditto what everyone else has said. Are they going to rewrite history next, because it was offensive and didnt always quite go the way we wanted it to?

Instead of learning to be 'PC', maybe we should all learn to be TOLERANT. I think that is lost on the world today.

Posted by: 3jaysmom at January 6, 2011 8:50 AM

SO inappropriate. The other commenters have already left great reasons as to why.

Posted by: Fraulein N at January 6, 2011 8:51 AM

Defacing. Infuriatingly so. What's next? Deciding that the dialog of the main characters is grammatically incorrect and 'correcting' it for the readers? Once you allow changes to works of classic literature, you've basically kicked the door open for any group that has a beef with the content.

Posted by: J at January 6, 2011 9:24 AM

The word sets the tone for the book. Without it, you don't feel the true nature of the relationship between blacks and whites at the time. Also, it reminds us how shameful that time was.

However, if we're going to edit the classics, I'd like to take a crack at the old testament.

Posted by: Brad at January 6, 2011 9:43 AM

Defacing. Use of the 'n' word provides time and context to the story by allowing glimpses into how people thought and talked during that time period. This is a slippery slope. I'm offended by how fucked up Heart of Darkness is as a book, but that doesn't give me the right to become a 'scholar' and decide to un-fuck it in ways that I deem socially acceptable.

Besides, our society sucks, so who cares what they define as 'acceptable'.

Whoa!! Sorry about that. It's the morning and my cynicism got away from me. I need more coffee.

Posted by: You can call me, 'Sir' at January 6, 2011 9:43 AM

Let's start with the truly offensive: Aristotle and Plato talk about homosexual relationships!!! If we are going to worry about one word, what about the talk of orgies in these classics!?!?!

OK...seriously...this is defacement of the worst kind. Mark Twain was a brilliant writer who wrote to display his characters, including the bad grammar and misspellings, so taking one word out of it would be destroying classic literature! DO NOT try to rewrite history to fit into political correctness...history is what it was and we can only change the future...leave the past alone and learn from it, don't correct it!

Posted by: Krush at January 6, 2011 9:49 AM

Slavery and war are offensive, too. Perhaps we should expunge those things from history books so as not to offend any delicate sensibilities.

Our past can be full of butterflies and sunshine if we just conveniently delete this stuff.


Posted by: Laura at January 6, 2011 9:51 AM

I gotta go with good move on this one. There will always be versions of the book in the original text, but the racism of the book will still come across without the inclusion of the word, and it will allow it to be opened up to a whole audience that otherwise will not see it.

The power of that word goes beyond historical context; it is a horribly ugly and powerful word, and the argument to keep it in versus remove it is one that does dance a fine line ( and invites all kinds of slippery slope warnings ), but in the end the value of keeping the word in is not strong enough to justify keeping it in if it means that the work overall will reach a broader audience, and a slow death of the word will continue. Sometimes doublethink can be a good thing...

Posted by: metawizard at January 6, 2011 9:58 AM

THAT is a tricky one.

I don't think we can leave that word, force kids to read it for school and then forbid them to say the word.

I also loathe the idea of editing Mark Twain's word choices. If writers don't get to pick their own words than why should we bother?

I just don't know.

Posted by: Goon Squad Sarah at January 6, 2011 10:19 AM

I'm appalled. That's the way Twain wrote it and that's the way it should remain. That wouldn't fly if the author was alive, would it? To me it's a scarier form of censorship if we change the content of books to make them acceptable to censors.

Posted by: Carolyn at January 6, 2011 10:20 AM

I've got to go with the group saying that it shouldn't be done. This kind of makes me feel like when the wife and I visited the Parthenon in Greece. There were cranes and scaffolding set up 'fixing' the ruins.

One thing in print for over 100 years and a place that was built over 2000 years ago. Neither of which needs to be 'fixed'.

Posted by: Rex at January 6, 2011 10:21 AM

When we read Huck Finn in high school, my English teacher had one of my classmates read the first page out loud (without telling us why). Having someone say the n-word out loud was... weird. Which was her intent, to get us to notice it. And then we had a very open and interesting discussion about what was happening at that time in history.

Honestly, as a junior in high school, I was a lot like Huck and Tom... paying attention to other, stupid high school things like what I was going to wear to homecoming instead of the greater issues of the world. But my teacher's lesson about Huck Finn really opened my eyes. It's one of the few things that's stayed with me. I don't think they should edit out the n-word, I think it's there for a reason - to enlighten readers. To make a point about racism and the awful things that have gone on (and are still going on).

Posted by: Erin at January 6, 2011 10:25 AM

I'm with the posters above who say it's a bad move. Whitewashing history leaves a really bad aftertaste. We need to know where we've been to instruct us about where we're going.

Posted by: Martin at January 6, 2011 10:53 AM

If Mart Twain were here today, he would burn the book himself rather than allow a bunch of air heads to deface his work!
I saw this and I am furious!
This is political correctness gone awry!

Posted by: Maribeth at January 6, 2011 11:02 AM

I think it's an exceedingly bad move. For one thing, I think that changing the words in an author's text without his consent is wrong. My bigger issue, though, is that changing the offensive word in order to make the book more palatable removes the opportunity for honest discussion of what life was like. The casual and constant use of such an inflammatory term is a perfect illustration of the evolution of language as well as the evolution of polite society.

Posted by: MamaKaren at January 6, 2011 11:08 AM

I think it is a terrible idea. Put me in the defacing a classic column.

Posted by: Hillary at January 6, 2011 11:08 AM

I'm an archivist and it warms my heart to read that so many people are against the changing of the original text. Throughout history original texts have been lost/destroyed (like the bible) and we are left without the original intent of the document(s).

Posted by: meanie at January 6, 2011 11:53 AM

I have to admit that I am OK with this, though it feels a bit... unsettling to say that. However, as a teacher in training in a program that emphasizes urban areas, I can think of situations where leaving the word in does more harm than good. I think the appropriateness of which version to read (because the original will always be around) depends on the setting, the age of the children, and the purpose for teaching the book.

I agree that it is an incredibly offending word that I have not uttered, and the person who said that using as a lesson but then not letting kids say it has a point. I hope that the edited version of the book has a preface or a note from the editors or something explaining the change, which could allow for classroom discussion.

If it was truly a word that everyone used at that time, and it wasn't meant to be offensive then, perhaps changing it to a less-offensive word doesn't stray so far from the author's intent.

Posted by: Kelly at January 6, 2011 12:01 PM

defacing a classic.
It is a book written about the times and the way of life when the book was written. I hate the word as well, however, I can remember the first time I read Huck Finn, and the use of the N word almost defined to me what it was like during that period of time. Our school never banned the books. Its not on the required reading list, but it is offered as an alternative reading list. There are a lot worse words and actions in movies, video games, and music that our kids are exposed to in these times. this is a piece of history, and should remain as it was written!

Posted by: molly at January 6, 2011 12:05 PM

Also in "1984" wasn't one of the things that Big Brother was doing to control the people was rewriting history? hmm... I sense a conspiracy.. ;)

Posted by: molly at January 6, 2011 12:09 PM

I don't like the edit. Yes, the N-word is hateful and ugly...now. Then, it wasn't a lot better, but it was more just a word. I read both "Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn" as a middle-schooler and it never occurred to me to apply those words to my black friends, or to think it was OK to do so. Let us educate children to help them make those intelligent distinctions between literature and modern life.

Last night I kicked my kids' butts at Boggle. I wasn't using any really amazing words, but I am well-read and my vocabulary is pretty big. The kids were all agog at my scores, and I said, just read the books in this house and you'll have a huge vocabulary (and unassailable Trivial Pursuit arsenal), too. My stepson moaned that he just couldn't get past the old language. His father has the same problem and it depresses the hell out of me. They are missing out on so much. This is what books like Huck Finn and Horatio Hornblower and "Romeo and Juliet" have to teach us: culture that is not ours. History that is ours. We shouldn't throw that away.

Posted by: Brooke at January 6, 2011 12:10 PM

Out of respect to you and your blog, I'll say "n" word instead of spelling it out in all its ugliness. Left on my own I probably would have spelled it out in this context.

I agree with the 99% of your responders. Leave the darn book alone. I don't believe in glossing over our racist history. I'll leave that to the Governor of Mississippi who does it so well.

Our kids need to learn just how ugly racism or any other form of discrimination is.

I'm not positive but I think the word turns up at least once in To Kill a Mockingbird. Gone With the Wind certainly had its share of racial epithets if not that actual word. Shall we change them too?

Eventually we'll get around to banning books entirely beginning with "1984" and "Fahrenheit 451".

Posted by: Ann Elizabeth Adams at January 6, 2011 12:12 PM

Defacing a classic for sure. Books are portals to learning, even if it is unsavory. It provides a perfect teaching moment for kids. Shouldn't that be the goal of every school? Too much rote thinking is pushed in school and woefully not enough critical and nuanced thinking.
Learning the circumstances of the times is much more captivating to a teenager versus memorizing the date the Lend Lease Act was passed.

Posted by: greenie at January 6, 2011 12:21 PM

I think the terms are offensive... but so are things like rape. If these books are being removed from the curriculums, move them up to older ages who can understand what the power of the word is. But don't just remove them because a word is offensive. And please don't change a classic like this: it gives a unique insight which we'd otherwise lose.

Posted by: Hannah at January 6, 2011 12:26 PM

I was a high school English Lit teacher for 12 years. Personally, I don't think literature should be rewritten or banned, although I don't recall a huge outcry when Agatha Christie's book "Ten Little Niggers" was changed to "Ten Little Indians" was changed to "And Then There Were None".

That being said, try teaching Huckleberry Finn to a group of 14 and 15 year olds when you have only one or two black students in the class and the word "nigger" appears over 100 times in the book. Yes, you do activities and exercises around language and cuture and history, but it is damn uncomfortable for the teacher and the black students. Maybe some discomfort also extends from the fact that I don't think we've reached a point in North America where we are colour blind either. All I know is that there were huge differences in the class comfort when I taught that book to an all-white class and when I taught it when there were black students present. Perhaps it is a novel best served for college and university or independent high school reading assignments.

Posted by: Mandy at January 6, 2011 12:56 PM

Our country was racist. Segments of the country still are. I find this hard to even comprehend, it is a classic that nearly everyone has read. This is how they spoke then.

We can't change the past and our history, anymore than Germans can pretend that Hitler didn't exist and they don't share the blame in what he did.

Personally, I feel the publisher needs to be informed why this is a terrible idea.

Posted by: One Mom's Opinion at January 6, 2011 1:15 PM

Changing the book to be "less offensive" is really changing and denying history. By removing the "offending" word, the reissue is removing a very real albeit ugly part of history- and that is just all kinds of wrong.

Posted by: Amy at January 6, 2011 2:16 PM

Glancing through these comments, I agree with most everyone's opinion here. That word makes me exceedingly uncomfortable, but it should.

Removing it from the books doesn't mean it didn't happen. How dare we forget. How dare we try to gloss over it. Shouldn't we be happy that it's the exception and not the rule? Shouldn't we be happy that it is now SO shocking to even think that word silently, in our own minds?
A teachable moment indeed.

In 50 or 75 or 100 years are we going to be having this same conversation about the word f*g?

I love the similarities people have drawn to rape & war. Yes, that's exactly it. Watering it down does a great disservice to all. Just because it's a word - one word - that can be changed (as opposed to actions like rape or war) doesn't mean it should. Words have great power.

(And Meanie, I immediately thought of the Bible, too!)

Posted by: Caitlin at January 6, 2011 3:17 PM

I think my head just about exploded when I read this. While I understand and appreciate the inclusiveness the editor is striving for, changing the words destroys the integrity of the book. It is depicting an era and a culture. Submerging yourself in Twain's classics is a tumultuous ride for modern man, but that is part of the journey, part of the gift he left us. We're appalled by what we read, we're moved by it, we're different because of it.

Dear Mr. Editor. Please do not censor a classic to avoid censoring.

Posted by: SassyPants at January 6, 2011 3:48 PM

I think this can be a little bit sticky. I agree with the preservation of both the history and the literature, but am also cautious of situations like Mandy referenced. It reminds me of a time last year when I was reading to Granny in the hospital from "Peter and Wendy" and how Barrie wrote about the "savages" and "Injuns" - and in the four-bed room she was in, two of the other residents were Native Canadians. I felt like a big jerk. I moved to a different part of the book, but have read it with a more jaundiced eye since then.

Posted by: Heather at January 6, 2011 3:54 PM

Defacing a classic. Revising history. Destroying the original intent.

- and just like Molly - my mind went right to 1984.

And then Farhenheit 451.

And I'm so very sad to see the few commenters who are ok with it. And - I'm thankful I own it in a beautiful hardbound book. I may go buy a few more copies before the new edition hits the stands.

Posted by: Mindy at January 6, 2011 3:56 PM

I do not think it should be edited unless there is permission from the original author which is obviously not possible. While I understand where people believe the words are inappropriate, they were not at the time the book was originally published. If people are that uncomfortable with it, don't read the book.

Posted by: Dianna at January 6, 2011 6:43 PM

The "classics" get re-edited for various editions all the time. There's abridged books, books written in other languages that have been translated, books written in Old English (Chaucer, Shakespeare) made simpler for students.

I have no problem with the n-word being removed from Huck Finn, I don't think it changes the story from the perspective of young students. If you're a literature, anthropology, or socialogy student studying and interpreting Huck Finn in depth, then by all means, find a copy with the n-word. I mean this is just one editor's US edition. Teachers and students will still have access to both versions and would hopefully choose the most appropriate version to read.

Posted by: laurs at January 6, 2011 8:29 PM

Honestly? I am still shaking my head over this. At the time the book was written the N word was appropriate to time, place and culture. Offensive sure, but thats the breaks, that is what it was at the time.

I am more appalled at rap music being able to drop it on the radio because by now the damn artists should know better - yet that is OK? Seems fucked up to me.

I would also love a crack at the old testament since we are editing the classics now....

Posted by: SleepyNita at January 6, 2011 9:08 PM

I understand the objection to the word, but it is part of our history, it's part of literature...LITERATURE! We can't erase it end expect the world (or the book) to be different, to fix the hurt the word has caused. What we can do is take it's power away by teaching tolerance and apathy.

I don't agree with removing it. It changes the story. It's like changing history. You can't fix problems by removing a piece of the puzzle.

Posted by: Cyndy at January 6, 2011 10:48 PM

Here's a comment to the Old Testament fixers - anyone ALLOWED to read that in a public school? I don't think kids are. And that's ridiculous, because it has so much culture in it and is the basis for a lot of literature since then.

Here's a comment to the "I don't want the kids to say that word". Guess what - no matter where you are, the kids already know that word. They know all the four-letter words, too. And those are in some fucking important books.

I think it's white guilt trying to sweep the past under the rug. I think it's disgusting and terrible. Across the board, people need to understand the country they're from. Whether of Asian, African, European or Americas' descent, no one is born with an innate knowledge of American history and culture. Taking the history away is robbing our children of the context and the progress that can be made. That change CAN happen and should and will.

If we pretend that everything has been the same as it is today, why would they think things will ever change?

Posted by: alektra at January 7, 2011 12:38 AM

Personally, I think it is defacement. It is a classic; a part of history. Perhaps removing the word does not detract from the actual story, but it is still a part of it. If you start re-writing things now, where do you stop?

Posted by: Delia at January 7, 2011 1:52 AM

It's a bad word that I wouldn't like to hear repeated, much like all derogatory names used to create or uphold "the other." But doesn't Huck come to realize it's a pointless word? And isn't half the reason it's such an important work that it opens up the discussion of race for high schoolers?

Posted by: Jeanne at January 7, 2011 7:22 AM

I find it offensive that they would remove the word or any word really.

I think it was Mark Twain himself who said "Censorship is like telling a man he cannot have a steak because a baby can't chew it."

Sad. Sad.

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**Aside, WTF with the last comment getting through?! Evil spambots are winning. :( **

I have to take the minority position here. I counted fewer than 5 people who approve of the move, and a couple wafflers, which is totally understandable.

I don't feel that this particular edit, hence *edition*, takes anything away from the original work. Like another commenter brilliantly pointed out, famous works are abridged all the time, without the consent of the (long dead) author. The original edition(s) will always be out there (abridged and unabridged!)

Whether it is right or wrong, teachers, particularly those in public school districts, must choose required literature very carefully. As sad as it is, a handful of closed-minded and reactionary people are dictating what books are and are not read in schools. Rather than having to avoid any books with controversial content, including great works like Twain's, why not make a version that can be assigned without fear of punishment?

I cannot imagine that any teacher would assign the book without letting it be known that it had been "cleaned up," which might actually intrigue the kids even more! It could actually highlight the shockingness of what was so commonplace at that point in history. As a parent, I would be thrilled that my child's class was reading the work and discussing it, despite the change, rather than pretending it didn't exist.

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Anyhow. I read another article on it, and had this thought: One of the main reasons the book should remain unedited is because the use of such language opens an invaluable dialogue about race, about prejudice and hatred, and I think that was one of Twain's main aims in the writing. History can not be whitewashed. (Nobody's talking me into painting THAT fence!) Though it is a work of fiction, I believe that the book really is a key part of Americana and the way people understand an era in US history. Removing the word is tantamount to acting as though it were never used, and erasing the debasement that an entire race of people suffered. To do that is to disrespect those people, and though I don't believe the current generation holds responsibility for "the sins of the fathers", we certainly don't have the right to ease the tinge of guilt that remains by acting like it never happened.
Hm. I may need to write my OWN blog post on this, even if it is a few days late for the grand ol' blogosphere and the fast-moving news cycle :P

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