Censoring Twain

[Professor and Mark Twain scholar Alan Gribben has arranged to publish a new edition of Huckleberry Finn that eliminates the usage of the “n-word” and “injun.”  He has done this, ostensibly, so that grade school teachers can use this classic without repercussions, without a sense of guilt.  The announcement of the new edition below comes from Publishers’ Weekly;  the commentary afterward is by Leonard Pitts, a journalist from the Miami Herald; and by Benedicte Page in London’s The Guardian. — Lew Rosenbaum]

Upcoming NewSouth ‘Huck Finn’ Eliminates the ‘N’ Word
By Marc Schultz
Jan 03, 2011, Publishers’ Weekly

Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a classic by most any measure—T.S. Eliot called it a masterpiece, and Ernest Hemingway pronounced it the source of “all modern American literature.” Yet, for decades, it has been disappearing from grade school curricula across the country, relegated to optional reading lists, or banned outright, appearing again and again on lists of the nation’s most challenged books, and all for its repeated use of a single, singularly offensive word: “nigger.”

Twain himself defined a “classic” as “a book which people praise and don’t read.” Rather than see Twain’s most important work succumb to that fate, Twain scholar Alan Gribben and NewSouth Books plan to release a version of Huckleberry Finn, in a single volume with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, that does away with the “n” word (as well as the “in” word, “Injun”) by replacing it with the word “slave.”

“This is not an effort to render Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn colorblind,” said Gribben, speaking from his office at Auburn University at Montgomery, where he’s spent most of the past 20 years heading the English department. “Race matters in these books. It’s a matter of how you express that in the 21st century.”

The idea of a more politically correct Finn came to the 69-year-old English professor over years of teaching and outreach, during which he habitually replaced the word with “slave” when reading aloud. Gribben grew up without ever hearing the “n” word (“My mother said it’s only useful to identify [those who use it as] the wrong kind of people”) and became increasingly aware of its jarring effect as he moved South and started a family. “My daughter went to a magnet school and one of her best friends was an African-American girl. She loathed the book, could barely read it.”

Including the table of contents, the slur appears 219 times in Finn. What finally convinced Gribben to turn his back on grad school training and academic tradition, in which allegiance to the author’s intent is sacrosanct, was his involvement with the National Endowment for the Arts’ Big Read Alabama.  Read the rest of this story by clicking here.

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PITTS: ‘Huck Finn’ fix: Good intentions, bad idea

Michael Ramirez/Investors Business Daily



Published: Sunday, January 9, 2011 at 3:00 a.m.

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. Publishers 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 News’d 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.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. E-mail him at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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New Huckleberry Finn edition censors ‘n-word’

Alabama publisher says expurgation of more than 200 ‘hurtful epithets’ will counter ‘pre-emptive censorship’ that has seen Mark Twain’s classic dropped from curricula

    Mark Twain (1884: Getty Images)

    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 “nigger” 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.”

    Gribben said he had decided on the move because over decades of teaching Twain, and reading sections of the text aloud, he had found himself recoiling from uttering the racial slurs in the words of the young protagonists. “The n-word possessed, then as now, demeaning implications more vile than almost any insult that can be applied to other racial groups,” he said. “As a result, with every passing decade this affront appears to gain rather than lose its impact.”

    “We may applaud Twain’s ability as a prominent American literary realist to record the speech of a particular region during a specific historical era,” Gribben added, “but abusive racial insults that bear distinct connotations of permanent inferiority nonetheless repulse modern-day readers.”

    Twain himself was a passionate critic of American racism, and donated money to a number of civil rights organisations including the nascent NAACP, as well as ironically critiquing prejudice in both Huckleberry Finn and the later novel Puddn’head Wilson. But controversy over his language is not new: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn came in fifth on the American Library Association’s list of the most “banned or challenged” books in the US in the 1990s (it had dropped in the 14th spot by the 2000s).

    But the idea of changing the language in the novel in order to boost its popularity is still viewed with bafflement in many quarters. Dr Sarah Churchwell, senior lecturer in US literature and culture at the University of East Anglia, said the development made her “incandescent” with anger. “The fault lies with the teaching, not the book. You can’t say ‘I’ll change Dickens so it is compatible with my teaching method’. Twain’s books are not just literary documents but historical documents, and that word is totemic because it encodes all of the violence of slavery. The point of the book is that Huckleberry Finn starts out racist in a racist society, and stops being racist and leaves that society. These changes mean the book ceases to show the moral development of his character. They have no merit and are misleading to readers. The whole point of literature is to expose us to different ideas and different eras, and they won’t always be nice and benign. It’s dumbing down.”

    Geff Barton, head of King Edward’s School in Bury St Edmunds, described the idea of changing Twain’s language as “slightly crackpot”. “It seems depressing that we are so squeamish that we can’t credit youngsters with seeing the context for texts. Are we going to teach a sanitised version of The Merchant of Venice? What I would want to do is to explore issues of how language changes in context and culture,” he said. Barton added that if Twain was taught less in the UK now, it was because since the national curriculum was introduced in 1989, the emphasis in English teaching was largely on works from the English literary canon rather than from America. “While we still teach To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men, Twain might just have fallen under the radar,” he said.

    Benedicte Page in The Guardian


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