Friday, January 7, 2011

Taking the "N-word" out of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn

 New controversy about Mark Twain has arisen: his books The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn will be published this February by NewSouth Books--in an edition that replaces the word nigger with slave, and the word injun with the word Indian.

How many times is "the N-word" used in Huckleberry Finn? 219 times, according to those working on this new edition. Huckleberry Finn, in fact, is one of the most banned booked in the United States.

According to an article in Publishers Weekly:
Twain himself defined a "classic" as "a book which people praise and don't read." Rather than see Twain's most important work succumb to that fate, Twain scholar Alan Gribben and NewSouth Books plan to release a version of Huckleberry Finn, in a single volume with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, that does away with the "n" word (as well as the "in" word, "Injun") by replacing it with the word "slave."
The controversy described in the articles about this event, in my opinion, center around "purists" who state that the writer's words are sacrosanct and must not be changed--debated, derided, and defused, OK, but not changed. The other point of view is that words such as nigger are so offensive that people--including many teachers--simply put the book down as unteachable or unreadable.

For the purist point of view comes a comment from an online Guardian article:
Dr Sarah Churchwell, senior lecturer in US literature and culture at the University of East Anglia, said the development made her "incandescent" with anger. "The fault lies with the teaching, not the book. You can't say 'I'll change Dickens so it is compatible with my teaching method'. Twain's books are not just literary documents but historical documents, and that word is totemic because it encodes all of the violence of slavery. The point of the book is that Huckleberry Finn starts out racist in a racist society, and stops being racist and leaves that society. These changes mean the book ceases to show the moral development of his character.
From the Publishers Weekly article:
"This is not an effort to render Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn colorblind," said Gribben, speaking from his office at Auburn University at Montgomery, where he's spent most of the past 20 years heading the English department. "Race matters in these books. It's a matter of how you express that in the 21st century."
The NewSouth publishers go on to say in the PW article:
But the heart of the matter is opening up the novels to a much broader, younger, and less experienced reading audience: "Dr. Gribben recognizes that he's putting his reputation at stake as a Twain scholar," said [NewSouth publisher Suzanne] La Rosa. "But he's so compassionate, and so believes in the value of teaching Twain, that he's committed to this major departure. I almost don't want to acknowledge this, but it feels like he's saving the books. His willingness to take this chance—I was very touched."
I have taught The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to 7th grade students. I find the use of the word nigger very grating, especially when we read the book aloud in class.

As a writer, I recoil at the idea of someone changing my writing to make a better or more teachable version, yet I understand the motivation. What high school textbook for British literature includes in the Canterbury Tales excerpts Chaucer's bawdy sections of the poem? From my 30+ years of experience--none.

I will consider this edition a children's book. Children's books are traditionally simplified--vocabulary, plot, and format are changed to make a book more accessible. I will consider this a children's version--and am glad that it will make Twain's books more widely read--if that is the case.

According to the Guardian online BooksBlog, "Censoring Mark Twain's 'n-words' is unacceptable" because the power of the repugnant words fuels Twain's anti-slavery and anti-racist message and, therefore, the message of the book is lessened by the censorship:
Undoubtedly the use of the word "nigger" – surely the most inflammatory word in the English language – makes Huckleberry Finn a tricky novel to teach. The book has recently repeatedly been judged as unsuitable for schoolchildren to study in the US educational system – and one can fully understand the feelings of anger and humiliation that many African American children and parents feel at having such a word repeatedly spoken in the classroom (the word appears 219 times in Twain's book).
But that is not necessarily a reason for replacing it with a gentler (bowdlerised) term. Twain was undoubtedly anti-racist. Friends with African American educator Booker T Washington, he co-chaired the 1906 Silver Jubilee fundraiser at Carnegie Hall for the Tuskegee Institute – a school run by Washington in Alabama to further "the intellectual and moral and religious life of the [African American] people". He also personally helped fund one of Yale Law School's first African American students, explaining: "We have ground the manhood out of them [African Americans], and the shame is ours, not theirs, and we should pay for it."
Classic literature is riddled with vocabulary that needs special attention when teaching. In Tom Sawyer, another common word is gay, meaning happy or delightful. In The Secret Garden, the word queer is used repeatedly, meaning odd or unusual. I wrote an article recently on the challenges of reading Zane Grey and his use of terms such as greaser.

So many words to censor, so little time. Or so many opportunities to teach, so little time. A great deal depends on the teacher and how the book is taught.

Yet I also have my gut-level reaction to the "n-word." I believe it truly is "the most inflammatory word in the English language." Do I really want--or need--to subject myself and my students to 219 experiences of a word that jerks my physiology every time I hear it spoken? Will Twain's novel still be effective if the word is changed?

I'm old enough to consider even students who are fifteen and sixteen years old to be "children," not to mention 7th and 8th graders. Perhaps I'll teach the edition that has been edited--including discussion of passages where we would compare the original language with that of the changed. Or perhaps I'll be tough on myself and my students and teach the books exactly as Twain wrote them, and work through the difficulties that Twain presents.

Which version am I going to use?

It may sound like a "cop-out," but I'm just going to have to think about it. Please comment below and tell me what you think.

Copyright 2011 by Thomas L. Kepler, all rights reserved


  1. Until I went to collage I attended a school system that used discarded Catholic textbooks for many of my classes. In many ways these 12 years molded me into the person I am. A few of the effects were good, including thinking for myself and not believing everything I read (well before the internet). Most were bad including a "bad taste" in:
    Biology from creationism, number of ribs and lack of human tail bones.
    Fiction from heavenly censored Shakespeare and Chaucer's Canterbury Tails. I even told my high school teacher these made no sense to me. To my surprise she agreed with me and told me not to worry as there would be no test questions on them.
    My education began when I went away to school where I graduated at the top of my class in engineering (not even Catholics could destroy basic arithmetic), hold numerous patients, have multiple masters degrees and retired after working for 20 years. Unfortunately I never became the medical doctor for the third world that I wanted to be due to my high school biology class (40 was just too old to START to become a doctor). I still hate writing and never read fiction due to my English classes (I once thought about becoming a writer). To every teacher the most constructive thing I can say is PLEASE don't do this to your students. With this "little white lie" you will destroy those that have any potential to become writers or teachers. It may be easy to be politically correct but are you willing to admit to yourself being a complete failure at the reason you decided to become a teacher? By the way I have also been adjunct faculty but quit after having to teach from a book where I had to constantly point out the factual errors of the author. I felt bad for the students that begged me to continue to teach but I could not subject them to such incompetence. Mark Twain selected the words he wrote for a reason, it is the authors reality the reader is trying to understand. If you want write your own book "inspired by" Mark Twain but do not degrade Mark Twain's legacy to civilization.

    1. Well said, sir. If a reader or teacher doesn't like the book as it is, then don't use it.

      And how did I deal with the "N" word? I let the students "deal" with it by allowing open and honest discussion. The depth of discussion was far more illuminating than any lecture I could have given.

      Thanks for your words.