Meet the downside to great works of literature being in the public domain: A sanitized version of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is in the offing.
This new version, edited by a man named Alan Gribben who is actually a scholar of Mark Twain’s work, will remove the “n-word” and replace it with “slave,” and replace “injun” with “indian.” That anyone would consider himself worthy of re-editing Twain’s work is preposterous on its face; that a Twain scholar would do so is practically unthinkable.
For starters, as anyone who’s read the book knows, Huck Finn is a first-person narrative told by Huck himself. Huck is a boy living in Missouri in the late 1830s or early 1840s, with barely any education at all. Twain was very, very careful to evoke Huck’s dialect in his writing, which is why the “n-word” is used. It’s not only appropriate for Huck to use the word; it’s completely inappropriate for him to use any other word in its place. The fact that it makes people uncomfortable to read the word is not necessarily a bad thing! It helps to underscore how times change and values with them — making Huck’s choice of epithet conform to modern standards pulls him out of his time and place and makes it that much harder for the reader to identify with him. Yes, the book is challenging to read because of both its language and its content, but challenging books are oftentimes the best ones.
There are of course those who argue that the book is racist because of the use of the “n-word” and because Jim, the primary African-American character, is put in humorous situations in what they regard as stereotypical ways. It’s true that Jim does some silly things, but — and this point seems to be missed by a lot of people who should know better — he’s not the only character who does! Huck himself participates, as do the Duke and the King, and they’re all white. If you look at their words and actions throughout the book, Jim is in fact the only character who behaves honorably and honestly. Even when Huck decides to free Jim he does so thinking, because of his upbringing, that he’s doing something dishonorable and will surely be sent to hell when he dies.
There are those who point out that people edit Shakespeare all the time when producing his plays. In fact, Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing is one of my favorite film adaptations of Shakespeare (despite Keanu Reeves’s inexplicable presence), and it replaces the Bard’s “thou,” “thee,” and “thine” throughout with their modern forms “you” and “your.” That’s acceptable, I think, because the modern forms mean exactly what the old forms did: there are no shades of meaning lost. If it were possible to drop another word into Huck Finn to replace the “n-word” without altering the semantics of the text at all, I would be all for it; but “slave” does not qualify, nor does any other word I can think of. Besides, when Twain wrote the book, in the early 1880s, the “n-word” had long since been considered a pejorative, albeit not to the degree it is today. You can be sure that Twain chose to use the word for a reason, so Gribben’s decision to nullify that choice is beyond presumptuous.
Besides, how can we expect children to learn real history if we sanitize it for them? Should we pretend the “n-word” never existed? Why stop there — why not pretend the KKK is and always has been fictional? Just skip over Joe McCarthy and his witch hunts? Ignore the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II? America is not, has never been and never will be a flawless society; pretending otherwise only does our children a disservice by leaving them unprepared for the reality they’ll discover when they mature. We’ve come a long way in the fight against racism in the U.S. — you have but to look at our president to prove that. But our kids will never know how far we’ve come if we hide the reality of the struggle from them. And Huck Finn is, or at least can be, a part of that education in addition to being a great read (which it is).
I hope the recent uproar about the book causes its editor or publisher to reconsider its publication, and if not that it at least convinces bookstores and libraries not to purchase it. It’s the kind of censorship that produces ridiculous movie edits for broadcast — anyone who’s yelled at their TV when John McClane says “Yippee-ki-yay, Mister Falcon” knows what I mean. It’s not just as good, it’s just wrong.
NOTE: I encourage anyone whose feelings about censorship are similar to mine to read Connie Willis’s excellent short story “Ado,” which isn’t available online but can be found in her book Impossible Things. (I encourage everyone to read every story in the book, in fact, but “Ado” is particularly appropriate in this case.)