Powder keg on the Mississippi: a noted Twain scholar releases an edition of Huck Finn in which he's searched and replaced a word 219 times -- probably the most incendiary racial slur in English. Did he just blow up the whole raft?
Mark Twain is one of America's greatest writers. Can we rewrite him?
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of the most important novels in American history. And it's full of a terrifically offensive word, the N-word, one that blows up in almost every discussion about race in America.
A new edition does away with that word. There's been much discussion over the years about style and gender-blind, race-neutral language, but in Twain? Who did such a thing, changing the words of Mark Twain? Alan Gribben, a top Twain scholar and head of the English Department at Auburn University, that's who. He's edited a new volume, Mark Twain's Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, which includes both books, for NewSouth Publishers. And in it, the N-word and the word "Injun" are missing throughout, replaced by the more neutral "slave."
In articles in Publishers Weekly and the San Francisco Gate, Gribben discusses his reasons, mainly drawn from his work with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Big Read for Alabama. He chose Huck Finn for the Big Read, and as he traveled the state and talked about the book with all sorts of readers, he came to see how Twain's use of the N-word was a barrier. Many couldn't read it without pain. Many children, black and white, had not seen or heard the word, and introducing it to their vocabulary was an enormous decision for teachers who assigned the book.
On the other hand, the history of racial tension and slavery in America exists. This is the way people talked, this is the way the world was in 19th-century America. Because it was that way then, it is this way now. That's important.
And one can praise Gribben for making a classic newly approachable, but who's to say that another word, in another book may be found objectionable, without such irreproachable reasons for removal as Gribben claims. Once one classic is edited, another can be.
There's no easy answer to whether or not Gribben's work is a positive step or a negative step. But it's a big one.
What do you think? Which version would you give a young friend, child, niece or nephew, to read, and why?
Ellen Scordato has 25 years' book publishing experience as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She's now a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer and agency. In addition to her work at Stonesong, Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and taught English as a Second Language at Cabrini Immigrant Services.
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