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Huck Finn hits the skidsPosted 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.
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.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 573-722-5322.