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New Edition Of Mark Twain’s ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ Removes The N-Word
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Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Next month will see the release of NewSouth Books’ Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: The Texts of His Companion Boy Books, which collects the two 19th century classics and revises them to remove an offensive word that, for years now, has been the cause of protests against teaching the books in schools.

The word?: ‘nigger.*’

In NewSouth’s edition, which was revised by Mark Twain scholar Dr. Alan Gribben, all instances of the word ‘nigger’ have been replaced by the word ‘slave’, as has the word ‘injun’, a derogatory term for Native Americans.

Gribben, who is passionate about Twain’s works, told Publishers Weekly he’s not trying to render these works “colorblind,” but that “Race matters in these books. It’s a matter of how you express that in the 21st century.”

Because people have protested the teaching of these books in schools, citing offensive language, Gribben thought revising it to remove these words would be the best way to get the books back in schools. Basically, he feels the teaching of the censored books is better than them not being taught at all. Gribben said, “For a single word to form a barrier, it seems such an unnecessary state of affairs.”

Of course, there are purists who oppose the revising of the books, such as Twain scholar Thomas Wortham, who told PW that Gribben’s censored version won’t “challenge children [and their teachers] to ask, “˜Why would a child like Huck use such reprehensible language?'”

I understand what Gribben is trying to do, and I don’t fault him for it. He’s a 69-year-old academic who loves Twain’s works and, at this point, just wants the books back in schools and feels this is the only option to get it done. He’s not coming at it from a malicious standpoint or as a way to withhold knowledge from children or discourage free-thinking.

On the other hand, our world has become too politically correct and to go back and change a classic piece of literature to adhere to today’s moral standards is preposterous. The fact that the use of the word ‘nigger’ automatically renders the novels “racist” is absurd; the novels are pure anti-racist sentiment. Huck Finn’s repeated use of the word would not be uncommon for an uneducated orphan boy from the South during the period of slavery in the United States. In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the young Huck initially has the common prejudice against blacks and slaves of the time, but the more he learns about his travel companion — the runaway slave Jim — the more he comes to understand the black man as a fellow human being and this changes Huck’s perspective. Even though his whole life he’s been taught to think negatively towards black people, Huck’s experiences with Jim steer him to make decisions based on his own conscience. That’s the lesson. A “nigger” is considered to be someone who is ignorant, so it’s ironic that Huck uses the word numerous times in regards to others when initially he is the ignorant one.

Does the excessive use of racial slurs make Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn an emotionally difficult read? Perhaps. But it was not written for today’s readers; it was written in a time where this is how people spoke and this was the mindset of those characters. Twain’s anti-racist statement is what should be taught to students. I’m not saying read the book to 6-year-olds, but I see no reason why this shouldn’t be taught in high schools and why teachers shouldn’t encourage teenage students to analyze the racism of the time.

There are plenty of other classic novels that use offensive language, including the N-word, such as Richard Wright’s Native Son and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird; however, I wouldn’t want those to be whitewashed in the same way that NewSouth’s edition of Twain’s works are now.

I feel that although the word is jarring to read (and even more so to hear), I think it’s better to expose students to the truth of our history and give them something to think about as it pertains to modern-day society. It’s not as though racism currently does not exist in our culture, because it does. Perhaps, like Huck, a student who has misconceptions of other races might be compelled to analyze their own thinking after having read the word in the book over 200 times.

Those adults against students being exposed to racist slurs in literature, maybe instead of having the books removed, should talk about it with their children at home, because in the real world, these same children will surely be exposed to racism and other hatreds. Why not arm them with knowledge against it?

Again, I understand Gribben’s mission — but instead of going through these works with an eraser, why not instead fight for the right for these books to be taught as is?

[*While I agree that this is a nasty racial slur, the purpose of publishing it within this article is to accurately report the issue and to provide an educated discussion of the topic: Should classic literature be altered?]


  1. This is censorship, and therefore, in principle I am against these revisions.

    Comment by Greg Davies — January 4, 2011 @ 11:25 pm

  2. I need to know if there is at least a forward explaining the revisions.

    I have mixed feelings about it. I wouldn’t want it for my children – we can’t whitewash (got a fence to paint?) history. But if there are school districts that are not offering these important books because of the use of these colloquialisms of the time, then introducing more current words *with an explanation so that it can at least be discussed* may be appropriate.

    What word replaces “injun?” Was Jim even a “slave?” I fear that the historical perspective is being lost. Class distinction was an important part of that period. It needs to see the light of day so that it is not repeated.

    Minimally, there must be a forward that clearly discusses the changes. Without that, the change must not be permitted.

    Are there copyright laws being broken here? Certainly ascribing “Mark Twain” to the authorship seems wrong without a clear explanation of how his words have been changed to preserve the original.

    Perhaps the changed words need footnotes added at each place the change occurs.

    Comment by Jon GOldstein — January 5, 2011 @ 9:12 am

  3. I think it is just as ludicrous to say “the n word.” Read or listen to yourself and think about it when you use that term. It is just insane. The true cruelty of the joke is that it means exactly the same thing so you aren’t saving yourself by referencing it rather than manning up and using the original term.
    Words only have as much power as we give them and until we stop lending such strength to certain words they will always skew our reality.
    The word nigger is a special case because so many black people use it themselves as a friendly jabbing referent. This dichotomy only adds to the cultural confusion and widens the racial divide.

    Forgive me if I am going off on a tangent I literally just got done watching The Man From Earth 2 minutes ago.

    Comment by Brian M. Frain — January 5, 2011 @ 9:28 am

  4. What’s next? Censoring hip hop lyrics? Doubt it and I’d decry that also despite the fact I hate hip hop!

    Comment by Paleo2k — January 5, 2011 @ 9:50 am

  5. The first time I heard about this I thought it was utterly stupid.
    Changing the “N word” to slave makes no sense. Why not change it to Negro, which sounds more “politically correct” for the present time, even though it is distorting the meaning of the original author and the past.

    I am not a journalist or professional writer, but I do write well with clear meaning and intention. Once this precedence of literary change takes hold, maybe I and others can apply for jobs as “political correctness inspectors”. We can then rewrite the annals of history, literature, journalism and whatever else may not seem politically correct.

    Figuratively, it is kind of like putting fresh icing on an old cupcake, it really does nothing to change anything of the past. Literally, it does change the present tense of the material and the perception of what fresh eyes take from it.

    All I see is a solution to solve a problem that creates another problem and I do not wish to elaborate further. Just use a little of your own imagination and fill in your own blank!

    Comment by Sal Zingale — January 5, 2011 @ 11:23 am

  6. Nothing new here. There’s a Thomas Bowdler for every generation.

    Comment by JW — January 5, 2011 @ 2:37 pm

  7. I’m not totally on board with the editing of the original, but if it isn’t done, then it probably shouldn’t be taught in public schools. The truth is that the N word (@ Brian Frain–it is different to refer to it in that way and doesn’t make you more manly to say the word) has enormous power. It’s so effing demeaning. No kid should be forced to read it(sometimes out loud as it was in my class) in school.

    It’s not just the existence of the word in Twain’s book. The problem with racism is usually not just about intent; it’s about the impact. Mark Twain may have been trying to make a case against anti-black sentiment, but go ask just about any black kid how they felt in class when they had to read it. Choosing to read a book to deal with such issues is fine. Forcing kids to read books where people of color are frequently referred to as racial slurs is dehumanizing, and therefore racist. Why is tacitly condoning racism better than censorship in this case? Why should those decrying censorship get to claim the moral high ground?

    There are hundreds of other racial slurs that would never be condoned in public school books, they don’t all need to be evoked. Why should this one be considered ok since it’s “historical” or “how ‘they’ spoke?” Sorry, but there are some things that can be left out of literature class.

    I think it’s valid to argue the original should be left alone. I get it, I do. But it doesn’t need be taught in public schools, especially when 90% of the teachers have no direct experience with being the victim of white racism. And frankly, expecting most parents to have sophisticated discussions with teenagers about racism is a fantasy.

    Comment by TM — January 5, 2011 @ 5:02 pm

  8. Here’s a crazy thought, if your school system doesn’t expose your child to important literature how about you as a parent try it some time? Yes, it’s an incredible shame that there are ignorant people out there who don’t understand the importance of books like this, but if they start whitewashing this, what else are they going to do? It reminds me of that episode of South Park where the guns in ET were replaced with walkie talkies.

    Seriously, it’s a shame a school system might not be able to teach the original book (for whatever bloated politically correct reasons), but maybe this gives the parent something to do with their kid, take some time and teach them. You know, do those things parents should do.

    Comment by wow — January 5, 2011 @ 8:30 pm

  9. Classic literature has a place in the class room, but it is hard to relate to the problems of 150 yrs ago to the modern world. Yes, racism still exists, but not in the blatant form it did then. English class should teach the language’s mechanics and vocabulary. Critical thinking should play a part, as I believe it should in all classes, but not be the main focus.
    Now that said, let me address the issue at hand. The lesson from Huckleberry Finn is about overcoming racism, and a to expose students to a snapshot of the time through literature. The use of racially derogatory language is important to the story, and the lesson because not only does it tell of the relationship dynamics of the characters, but also was common vernacular of the time.

    Comment by Sam — January 6, 2011 @ 1:21 pm

  10. If our kids listen to the Rapper Jay-Z”s album,” be a n****r too” on the title song, they will hear the word an average of once every 4 seconds. Will a similar fate befall the rap industry?

    Comment by robertarizona — January 6, 2011 @ 6:09 pm

  11. As a graduate of the University of Florida with a BA in Library Science, I do not see the need to Bowdlerize The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or any other book. As the mother-in-law of a fine man who was called the “n” word because he jostled against someone during rush hour. I think the issue of racism is alive and well and needs to be addressed.

    Replacing all the “n” words in Huckleberry Finn will just produce an historically inaccurate work of fiction with a meaning distorted from the original. And what about all the free men and women of color who lived during the time period of this book? Do we just call them slaves and further confuse the issue?

    Comment by Helen — January 15, 2011 @ 6:35 pm

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