in literature, politics, Uncategorized

NewSouth Is Removing The N-Word from Upcoming Edition of “Huckleberry Finn”

From Publisher’s Weekly, the following speaks for itself:

[F]or decades, [The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn] 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.”

Because it’s more important to censor classic literature to protect our children from potentially harmful content, rather than to teach them historical context. Idiocracy: It’s already here.

(via @scottmendelson)

  • This is fantastic news. Let us also remove the unwed sex from The Scarlet Letter and those terrible Uncle Tom books for having slavery. This is what needs to be done.

  • This is not unlike the censoring of shots in Fantasia which featured a slave centaur with dark skin. The only difference in that case is that it was Walt Disney himself who censored it, so I can at least accept that. Another example of this is that Herge re-illustrated some panels in some of his old Tin Tin books that featured some pretty racist portrayals of Africans and Indians. Again, Herge did it himself, so artistically he must have thought it okay.

    This, on the other hand, is simply wrong. Completely and utterly. If Mark Twain rose from the dead and said "I approve of all n-words in my book to be altered to something less racist" then I guess I could accept it. But this is just another example of, as Dave said, censoring art to avoid teaching historical context. Nevermind the fact that the historical context surrounding these Twain books is pretty important regardless of specific language choices.

    Of course, I can see the other side of this argument. The publishers of Huck Finn would like the book to remain a big part of the education of American children, and if the only way to do that is to eliminate offending words, then offering a version without them makes sense. I suppose they don't want to go the route of practically pretending the book doesn't exist, as Disney has done with Song of the South, one of their best loved classics, still unreleased on home video in North America.

    That doesn't make the positions of this publisher, or Disney for that matter, any less wrong. Stifling, censoring, or blocking access to a piece of art, particularly one with such immense cultural value does nothing but injure our culture.

  • Alexandre Bibeau

    If Warner Bros can have Whoopi Goldberg explain on the Looney Tunes DVD that "the cartoons are products of their time and contain racial and ethnic stereotypes that, through modern eyes, would be considered offensive", why can't they have a preface in the book explaining the historical context?

  • Thuan Dang

    I remember Quentin Tarantino answering Charlie Rose about his characters using nigger and Spike Lee being against that.

    Tarantino answered, and I'm paraphrasing, in their world they use nigger because it's part of their character, if I didn't then it wouldn't be true to the people they are and the world they are living in. The story wouldn't be real, in the sense of being truthful of who I am as an artist and a storyteller.

  • When I was studying Macbeth at high school, we had a censored version that omitted some of the more ribald lines of the drunk porter – from memory, he makes a comment about how alcohol "increases the desire, takes away performance". I'd actually bought my own copy for me to make notes in, so I could see the consored lines, which seemed pretty tame for 16-year-olds. That just seemed strange to me – and worng. We shouldn't be cutting the greatest playwright ever just to save 16-year-olds from hearing about the existence of sex and drinking.

    On the other hand, when we were reading "The Catcher In The Rye," our school editions rendered the F word as F—. And to me that's an allowable compromose. Yes, it's tampering with the writer's words, but it's doing the least amount of violence to the text – the word he used is still there – while still making it appropriate for school use. I don't see why they can't do the same here. You don't want to actually have the word, say N—–. As for Injun – the N word I understand (it's a word that would make me pause if I read it somewhere), but is Injun really such a big issue? I realise that Native Americans dislike that term, but is is even close to being as utterly offensive as the N word? And wouldn't that change involve even greater violence to the text – isn't there a character called Injun Joe or something? (I may be wrong – it's been decades.) Are they going to just rename him?

    But then, I am a New Zealander, so I'm sufficiently distant from the issue of race and racist words in America to be comfortable or confident making pronouncements about what is or isn't offensive over there. Most of my perception on the issue is based on what I've seen in the media over different words. For all I know, my repeated use of the word Injun may have caused horrible offense. If so, I sincerely apologise.

    But the fact is, it's a hard, harsh book from memory, it reflects a specific time and place, and if you go cutting the source too much you end up losing all that made the original worth reading. What we see in this case is nothing different to what Thomas Bowdler did in his Shakespeare adaptations – and the word "bowdlerise" does not mean to improve the text.

  • The issue is a little complicated, though, isn't it? The n-word is a polarizing, inciendary word, especially when you think of children in secondary school, and it appears in Huckleberry Finn a whopping 219 times.

    The article "Huckleberry Finn loses the N-word" points this out rather well:

    "The unease that many contemporary readers feel when facing Twain's characters is natural and appropriate. It's certainly something to be keenly attuned to, especially when introducing the book to children. I have a tough time imagining my kids sharing the experience of reading the words "Jim had an uncommon level head, for a nigger" with their fellow students in school, let alone saying them out loud in their classrooms. I sure as hell wouldn't envy the teacher whose job it was to steer the discussion afterward. And it's not as if Twain's original version is going away. New South is simply giving educators and other readers the option of enjoying Twain's work without tripping over a derogatory term, especially one coming from its hero."

    Imagine the reality of a high school classroom trying to read aloud or even discuss portions of the book and I think you can see that this isn't quite as easy an issue to dismiss.