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Sanitizing Huck Finn

Created date

February 22nd, 2011

It s a six-letter word that still causes trouble today, and it appears 219 times in Mark Twain s Huckleberry Finn. Because of it, the classic book has fallen from reading lists and library shelves across the country over the last 40 years. The problem has plagued nationally known Twain scholar Alan Gribben since the beginning of his career in the early 1970s. In this time, he s had countless students approach him about their uneasiness with Twain s frequent use of the word, which appears at least once on nearly every page. Middle and high school teachers have told him that they can t teach the book because of the slur. Even Gribben couldn t bear to use the racial epithet while reading passages out loud in his classes at Auburn University in Montgomery, Ala. Because of my upbringing and my African-American friends and their feelings, the use of this word in Huck Finn has troubled me from the very beginning, says Gribben. Especially bothersome, though, was seeing the book disappear from schools and libraries. I thought to myself, What a shame it is that a six-letter word stands between this great novel and an entire generation of readers.

Altering ' the original

And so about a year ago Gribben decided to do something about it. He got a hold of Twain s first edition of Huckleberry Finn and removed all 219 instances of the n-word, replacing it with slave. His hope is that this new, less offensive edition, published in February by NewSouth Books, will counter the ongoing preemptive censorship by municipal governments that has made Twain s classic a literary relic spoken of but rarely read. Twain s own tongue-in-cheek definition of a classic book was one that people praise and don t read.

A debate ensues

Critics of my edition hold it up as proof that political correctness knows no limits, but I really don t see it as a political thing, remarks Gribben. Instead, it s a way of getting us into more substantive cultural discussions about the actual content of the novel, rather than just a word that Twain probably thought of as an incidental part of his childhood dialect. Should editors and scholars change Mark Twain s original text? Tell us what you think. Yet many lay readers and scholars argue that Gribben himself has removed the actual content from the novel, thus making the intended cultural discussions difficult. Furthermore, Twain experts such as James Leonard say that there was nothing incidental about the author s use of the n-word. Twain s use of this word in Huckleberry Finn is highly thematic, says Leonard, an English professor at The Citadel and editor of the Mark Twain Circular. Take, for instance, Huck s relationship with Jim. On the one hand, Huck begins to recognize Jim s humanity all the while referring to him as a n-----. It s a big part of the irony that makes the novel great, and by changing that one word, you lose most of it. Leonard maintains that Gribben s sanitized version denies readers the rich historical undertones of the racial insensitivity and hostility that existed in Twain s day traits that make the book a valuable tool for highlighting the unsavory elements of America s past. Still, Gribben emphasizes that his is only a limited edition intended not to replace but to fill a gap in the existing Twain literature. Indeed, in his introduction, he points readers to authoritative uncensored versions of the novel should they choose to read them. I m interested in a limited audience here, he explains. I created this edition for the people who are so personally opposed to the word that they won t read the novel and for those teachers who are forced to drop it from their lesson plans. Even so, Gribben s edition has called forth the rancor of a vast number of people who say that it s just plain wrong to tamper with a revered American classic like Huckleberry Finn.

Purity policing

In response to a Publishers Weekly article that Gribben wrote in defense of his book, one reader noted: The real problem is that the people in charge are unwilling to say that the book preserves a different time. The new edition . . . invites more purity policing. Americans have hotly debated the matter for nearly half a century and they ll probably go on doing it for another 50 years. But the question remains, what would Twain have to say about all of this? In 1907, he wrote: The truth is, that when a Library expels a book of mine and leaves an unexpurgated Bible around where unprotected youth and age can get a hold of it, the deep unconscious irony of it delights me and doesn t anger me.