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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Huckleberry Finn and Truth in Labeling

Political blogger Kevin Drum picks up a report from Publishers Weekly about a forthcoming edition of Huckleberry Finn in which all 219 uses of the word "nigger" will be replaced with the word "slave." The idea, of course, is to get Twain's classic (back) into classrooms in communities where the book has been deemed too offensive, in large part because of its use of the "N-word."

Somewhat to my surprise, the liberal Drum is okay with this, on the grounds that a bowdlerized Huck Finn is better than no Huck Finn at all: "[T]he only realistic alternative," he writes, "is that Huckleberry Finn vanishes from high schools and becomes a book taught solely at the university level. Maybe that's better. But I doubt it."

Not being a school teacher, I can't comment intelligently on the political pressures teachers face or on the maturity level of today's high school kids.  But I do have a problem with the bowdlerization plan on the grounds of its dishonesty.  The book students will read under the title "Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain" will not be the book Clemens wrote, and it does a disservice to students--not to mention the author--to falsely label it as such.

If we lack the nerve to confront our society's racist roots even in the pages of a book, then it's probably better to let Huck Finn vanish from the high school curriculum.  Anyway, it will likely have a greater allure for young minds if they first encounter it on the shelf of "prohibited books" rather than on a list of required texts.


  1. I totally agree, Karl. In addition to which, shouldn't any marginally sentient human be able to discern the difference between reading an "offensive" word in the context of a written work from a different time and using it in everyday conversation? And doesn't encountering the word in the context of the work offer up a valuable teaching moment?

  2. I notice Drum's phrase "only realistic alternative." Aside from begging the question of political (as opposed to artistic) "realism," it is an ugly pile of syllables whose pure mass seems designed to forestall disagreement---for one thing, is the "only alternative" really an alternative? I think this voguish phrase is a code for "I'm not up to fighting for principle on this one." It's offensive, actually. What's next---removing the Twain's lovingly crafted dialects on the ground that they make the speakers seem ignorant? Maybe Huck should have our correct view of slavery instead of feeling he is going to hell for saving Jim---after all, some students might not understand Twain's irony.