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Huck Finn hits the skids

Posted Thursday, January 20, 2011, at 5:05 PM

This statue of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer graces the streets of Hannibal, Missouri, giving credit to the works of author Mark Twain.
Yes, the rumor you've heard is true - The famous American novel Huckleberry Finn has been rewritten, minus the infamous "N" word!

On Feb. 15, NewSouth Books will publish the edition, which has been supposedly "cleaned up" by Twain scholar and Auburn University-Montgomery professor Alan Gribben.

Those of us who have taught the book are well aware that the offensive word appears in the novel over 200 times - though I shutter to think that someone actually sat down and counted all these controversial words, making little hash marks each time he found one.

Published in 1885, the book has been controversial from the beginning. It is the story of a young, uneducated boy who grows up in the pre-Civil War South, where slavery is accepted as the social norm. He finds himself on the other side of the law, when he aids his friend Jim in escaping slavery and trying to rescue his children from another slave-holder. Their travels on the Mississippi are epic.

Gribben has substituted the word "slave" for the racial slur. He explains that the reason he's publishing the book is that it is no longer being taught in the public schools, because of the racial slurs against both blacks and native Americans (Remember "Injun Joe"?).

"All I'm doing is taking out a tripwire and leaving everything else intact," says Gribben. "All his sharp social critique, all his satirical jabs are intact. This novel cannot be made colorblind."

He explains that the one word is keeping many people from reading the book. He says that when he is doing public readings and substitutes the word "slave," he hears "audible signs of relief." He admits that intelligent, educated readers can recognize that the book is an anti-racist book written in the pre-Civil War South, using the language of the times.

But, he says, "when the younger reader is staring at that word five times on a given page and the instructor is saying, 'Mark Twain didn't mean this and you have to read it with an appreciation of irony,' you're asking a lot of a younger reader."

Needless to say, his action has caused a firestorm, and I myself am sufficiently horrified to make up for all those readers who don't give a flip, one way or the other.

However, I see his point. I have had students walk out of my class because of the "N" word, when I know that if they would just give the novel a chance, they would see how truly anti-racist it is. When young Huck decides to go against his upbringing and his entire society to help a black man gain his freedom and "steal back his children," he feels that he is going to hell - but he does it anyway, because he sees the slave Jim as a man - not a piece of property.

If the publishing of this "politically correct" version of the novel does no more than promote a healthy discussion of the issue, I feel that it's a good thing.

For librarians, who are charged with the task of choosing which version to stock on their shelves, I suggest that they do both. Let readers (and teachers) choose which version they prefer.

As for me, I really love what Cindy Lovell, the executive director of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum in Hannibal, Missouri, said about the issue.

"We are not fans of changing Mark Twain's words," she said."They have stood the test of time. The book is an anti-racist book and to change the language changes the power of the book. He wrote to make us squirm and to poke us with a sharp stick. That was the purpose."

From the snow-covered hills of Tillman, Missouri, this is your rural Mark Twain-loving reporter, Madeline, signing out on a beautiful winter's day.

Showing comments in chronological order
[Show most recent comments first]

Huck Finn is such a great story. It should be left the way it was intended.

-- Posted by starry_056 on Fri, Jan 21, 2011, at 9:36 AM

I agree, though I have no earthly idea how a black person must feel when he/she reads it.

I also agree that intelligent, educated readers can pick up on the satire, which is intended to ridicule the white folks' attitude toward blacks.

However, not everyone is a gifted, discerning reader - and it's sad to see them take Twain literally and assume that he is, in fact, racist.

For children, the book's language may actually encourage them to assume that Twain's language is socially acceptable.

I once substituted in a school in which the "N" word was bandered about in the halls - quite loudly - and no one did anything about it.

-- Posted by goat lady on Fri, Jan 21, 2011, at 12:07 PM

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Huck Finn as a young boy and Mark Twain is a well respected and successful writer. It's wrong I feel to try and change his intent and fabulous works.

-- Posted by Dexterite1 on Fri, Jan 21, 2011, at 1:33 PM

I just finished reading "I Want to Know Why" by Sherwood Anderson and the short story is riddled with the "n" word. I cannot imagine slamming the book shut at the first encounter with the word because, as a reader, I chose to read the story in the first place and I took my chances when I started. I do not like everything I read but I try to complete the task, regardless. I do not use the word. I do not allow youngsters to use the word. However, I cannot stand by and condone the alteration of a piece of American literature because of a word. Anybody offended by the use of the "F" word? Anybody not attend movies because of its use? A simple explanation to youngsters reading the book for the first time should suffice. Look at the entire picture and grow thicker skin!

-- Posted by geezerette on Fri, Jan 21, 2011, at 1:56 PM

Purging the pages of Twain diminishes the fact that it's not the words that need to be cleansed, but rather the heart of mankind.

-- Posted by Sky on Fri, Jan 21, 2011, at 3:07 PM

Hey! Were you a fly on the wall last week? I could almost swear you copied my explanation! I first had students view Hal Holbrook's characterization Of Mark Twain,and he explains Huck's astonishment when Jim spoke of buying his wife, then both of them working to earn enough money to buy their children. We are reading excerpts of Twain's right now. I'm afraid there won't be time to read the entire novel, though I hope some will want to do so. It is fun to bring in memories of the days we studied at the levee in downtown Cape--just hoping a riverboat would pass to distract us. There are stories of the Underground Railroad connection at Cape that I share also. My dad lived in one of the houses for awhile--though the secret tunnel was sealed. I hope if someone reads this new edition, he will also be aware of the alterations.

-- Posted by GONENOW on Sat, Jan 22, 2011, at 11:10 AM

GN - That's one of the many things that makes a good teacher -- when you bring in local connections from your own past. Some of your students may never have seen the Mississippi River. When I taught in a northwestern state, the kids had no concept of just how BIG that river is!

-- Posted by goat lady on Sat, Jan 22, 2011, at 11:22 AM

They were surprised when I explained that it really IS the MUDDY River. I also told that sometimes we liked to see the boats at night with workers showing up in the light of their windows. (Why would college kids go there at night, unless it was to see the boats? Ha!) I had friends whose dad worked the river, so I told them what fun it was when he finally came home--loaded with gifts, most often.

Kids really do like to hear about the "ancient times" in which we lived. (back in the day, as they say)

-- Posted by GONENOW on Sat, Jan 22, 2011, at 12:39 PM

The kids up north couldn't grasp the idea of a hot night. In their experience, when the sun went down and darkness fell, it was cold. They couldn't imagine sweating in the dark. Heck, they couldn't imagine sweating!

-- Posted by goat lady on Sun, Jan 23, 2011, at 5:55 PM

One thing I learned as an elementary library media specialist was to try very, very hard to ignore parents who got their panties in a wad over a bad word used in a novel. I always cautioned students if a book was on a more mature level and might (for elementary) have a word or two that could offend. You'd probably be surprised at the kids who would say, "Oh, don't worry about that. I guarantee you I've heard worse from my own parents."

This guy's explanation as to why he feels a need to doctor an American classic scares me to death. Here we go.

-- Posted by lovebooks on Sun, Jan 23, 2011, at 7:03 PM

I do not have a problem with substituting the word slave for the N word. This does not change the narrative of Huckleberry Finn. At the time this book was written the N word was not considered controversial. What was controversial was the idea of a slave being portrayed as a person rather than as a commodity. The fact that Huck befriended Jim, and began to see him as a person, was very uncomfortable for the genteel society of that era. The N word does not add anything to the narrative and the removal does not take away from that narrative.

-- Posted by cheers4dhs on Mon, Jan 24, 2011, at 11:11 AM

I bet Mark Twain would disagree.

-- Posted by lovebooks on Mon, Jan 24, 2011, at 9:20 PM

If if I spent my time worrying about every offensive thing that was said about me to me

or otherwise I would have no time to live my life.

-- Posted by mythought on Tue, Jan 25, 2011, at 9:04 AM

We can't change history, and we shouldn't tamper with classic literature. Mark Twain is not here to defend his work, but I believe that if he were he'd write a humorous account about the folks who want to go back in time to wipe out the roots of who we are today. Funniest thing--they would probably not know that he was "poking fun." He had style.

-- Posted by GONENOW on Wed, Jan 26, 2011, at 7:25 AM

I'm sure Twain would have an appropriately biting comment about the alteration of his book without his permission.

-- Posted by FJGuy on Thu, Apr 14, 2011, at 1:10 PM

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Madeline DeJournett
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Madeline (Giles) DeJournett is the Advance writer for the North Stoddard Countian. A retired high school English/history teacher, she spent 32 years teaching in 5 schools in Missouri and Alaska. These days, she lives quietly with a menagerie of wild and domestic animals on 52 secluded acres in the remote Tillman hills south of Advance. She graduated from Dexter High School in 1960 and Southeast Missouri State in 1964. She can be contacted at advancensc@sbcglobal.net.
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