Seems like once or twice a year Huckleberry Finn finds himself in hot water. Usually regarding some form of censorship, almost always around Twain’s use of the word nigger.
Yes, the word is hurtful. It’s also historical. It is a part of our American heritage, one of the uglier parts, and to ignore it (or worse, to hide behind the phrase ‘the n-word’ as if that somehow makes it more polite for conversation) suggests we are still unable or unwilling to address our nation’s racism head-on.
So how surprising is it to find that a new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is being produced with the word nigger replaced by the word slave and the Injun in Injun Joe expunged completely.* And by a company called NewSouth Books. The New South, of course, being the term originally used to separate the Southern States from their pre-Civil War plantation-and-slave-owning ways and their modern, more integrated self. Clearly NewSouth (if not the New South) would prefer to whitewash (so to speak) its hurtful history by removing all traces of it from literature.
Once you start ‘cleaning up’ literature, or revising history, in the name of not hurting people’s feelings where do you stop? If someone objects to the portrayal of Huck’s Pap as a drunkard and abusive, do we remove all references from the next edition? What about the murderous violence in the feud between the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons? Should that go next?
More bizarre to me is that this new edition is prefaced and edited by Twain “scholar” named Dr. Alan Gribben. I don’t doubt Dr. Gribben’s credentials, only that I have a hard time calling someone a scholar who thinks presenting Bowlderizations of classic literature in order to make them “less hurtful, less controversial” is somehow preferential to actually using the text for what Twain intended: as a scathing satire aimed at exposing the very things modern sensibilities find objectionable. It seems to me a scholar would recognize the value of the author’s intent and the opportunities the text provides in opening discussions about the material.
Language has weight and meaning, Dr. Gribben. I hesitate to point this out, as I’m sure you must have come to realize this during your studies, but the word slave denotes a lower class of human while nigger promotes a person’s belief in another human as a lesser species. The meaning and intent behind the user’s word choice is evident in how they use it, and Twain understood this, and he was explaining it for the rest of the world to see. You can travel the world over and find a history of slaves among many (so-called) civilizations; Americans had to invent the word nigger to further underscore their contempt. The word is used as an epithet toward people who are not and never were slaves no mater what its original providence. This is part of Twain’s point.
Dr. Gribben has defended himself against the “textual purists” by suggesting that his edition will allow for the book to be used with a younger, more “general audience.” I would like to suggest that Dr. Gribben, for all his fine scholarship, doesn’t have the slightest clue about young readers and, in fact, doesn’t respect or trust them to be able to deal with the truth. You see this a lot, with people making decisions for the good of the children. Think of the children! It is not only an insult to the intelligence of young readers to suggest as much, it shows a near contempt for educators and professionals who deal with children to know how to present and teach challenging material to those readers.
It isn’t pretty, but the only audience this new edition of Huckleberry Finn will satisfy are those who would prefer that the past be absolved through omission. Perhaps the next book NewSouth can publish would be a narrative of the settlement of the Oklahoma Territories without mentioning the Trail of Tears. Or perhaps a version of Farewell to Manzanar that somehow skirts the issue that the Japanese were American citizens. You know, because we wouldn’t want to upset people by opening old wounds with something as hurtful as the truth.
* Since posting this I’ve seen reports that the word Injun was removed entirely and others that say it was replaced with Native or Indian. At least they didn’t go with Redskin, but Indian Joe isn’t any more “corrected” that Injun Joe and Native Joe sounds stupid..