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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Word by Any Other Name...

Among the defenses of his cleansing of the "n word" from his edition of Huckleberry Finn (posted on line today by Publishers Weekly) Twain scholar Alan Gribben states that "it is hard to open Huckleberry Finn without encountering the institution of slavery and the unsavory racial attitudes of the 1840s." In other words, by removing a single word he has not removed the offensive attitudes held at the time the book was written. Which begs the question: Why would removing the word make the novel acceptable? Is it only the word and not the attitude it represents that makes Twain's work unworthy of being taught in schools today? Does that strike anyone else as ridiculous as it seems to me?


  1. Actually, I follow Gribben's logic. His goal is not to sanitize the novel of the attitudes and issues that make it controversial and important, but rather to eliminate one word that is so much of a "red flag" that it blinds potential readers and short-circuits any intelligent discussion of the book and its message.

    I follow his logic, but I don't agree with his conclusion. I think it's silly and illogical for people to react to any single word with hysteria, and I think that bowing to the pressure they would exert is tantamount to endorsing the hysterical view.

    In any case, there's another problem with the plan to publish an expurgated Huck Finn. If Mark Twain were alive and writing Huckleberry Finn today, maybe he would choose to omit the word "nigger" himself. (I can imagine his editor trying to persuade him to do so using an argument much like the one Gribben uses.) But Twain is not alive, and we really don't have the right to make that decision for him and then publish the resulting book under the title of Huckleberry Finn.

  2. I'm curious to know: is there a prominent notice in the front of the book that lets readers know this change has been made? If so, at least it allows readers to come to their own conclusions about the rightness or wrongness of changing an author's words. If not, then not only do we have to address whether the change makes sense, solves anything, is right or wrong, but we also have to confront the possibility that, looking down the long scope of time, people might not even remember that the content was not this way originally. That's a risk even with a disclaimer, however prominent, but at least it would be a nod to the need to inform readers that what they're reading has been altered post-author.

  3. The New South edition of Huck Finn is due in stores in February. I understand it will have introductory material that I imagine will explain the changes. Since traditional, unexpurgated editions of Huck Finn will continue to be published, I don't imagine there's much chance that our society as a whole will lose track of which version was the original. But I don't doubt that some school kids who read the New South edition will become confused.