Literature scholars oppose removal of ‘n-word’ in censored ‘Huck Finn’

Though author Mark Twain isn’t alive to voice his opinion on the matter, an updated edition of his 126-year-old book “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” will eliminate all instances of the “n word.”

The new edition’s publisher, NewSouth books, says the change is a “bold move compassionately advocated” by the book’s editor, Twain scholar Dr. Alan Gribben, who cited decades of cringe-worthy teaching experiences when uttering the racial slurs as the reason the book’s alternation.

“The n-word possessed, then as now, demeaning implications more vile than almost any insult that can be applied to other racial groups,”  Gribben said. “As a result, with every passing decade this affront appears to gain rather than lose its impact.”

Gayle Wald, an author and professor of English and African-American courses at George Washington University, told The Daily Caller that the alterations could do a disservice to readers.

“I have to agree with those who object to changing Twain’s text — not because of some ideal of purity, but precisely because Twain’s language forces us to confront the impurity of one the most beloved books in the American canon,” Wald told TheDC. “Twain’s America was also a deeply racialized one, and ‘Huckleberry Finn,’ notwithstanding its celebration of the pleasures of boyhood, forces us to grapple honestly with that.”

Kim Moreland, English professor and author of “The Medieval Impulse in American Literature,” which has a chapter on Mark Twain, told TheDC that censorship gives too much power to what is censored.

“I respect Gribben’s motivations, I cited him in my book, but I think he’s wrongheaded. I understand Gribben’s concerns about alienating children with use of the language, and so I would have no problem as long as the new edition of the book is labeled as the children’s edition,” Moreland told TheDC.

Moreland said a more constructive way of dealing with the slur, at least in terms of teaching the text to young students, would be to emulate the school districts that have created specific teaching units to enable teachers to better deal with the complicated issues in the novel.

“I can imagine a young inexperienced teacher not knowing quite how to approach ‘Huckleberry Finn,’ and you have to have the courage to dive in,” Moreland said.

Margaret Soltan, another English professor at George Washington University, expressed opposition to the removal of the racial slur in Twain’s book.

“Well-meaning professors who think they’re protecting young people from mean words by taking those words out of literature are in fact exposing these people to far more danger than hurt feelings,” Soltan told TheDC.

Soltan used her professional and religious stances to explain why the derogatory term replacements would actually be detrimental to readers.

“I’m a Jew and an English professor. If I were so hurt and offended by every use of the word ‘kike’ and similar slurs — in a work of art that I refused to engage with the work, I’d not only be unemployed; I’d be an idiot,” Soltan told TheDC. “You cannot grasp Huck’s ethical transformations in Twain’s story without first grasping the truth of his attitudes as they express themselves in his speech.”

Soltan told TheDC that it’s probably a good thing if readers are offended by the term in Twain’s text because then they will have a strong understanding of the slur’s offensive implications.

“If his speech upsets you, that’s arguably all the better, since your response dramatizes the violence of the word, and the harsh reality of the attitudes it conveys,” Soltan said.

E-mail Laura Donovan and Follow her on Twitter

  • eej003

    This is a non-story. Huck Finn is in the public domain, which means that anybody can freely print and sell it. There is no censorship going on, if one publisher thinks there is a demand in the market for this product, let them roll out and see what the public thinks. Nobody is forcing this new version on anybody, and the original will still be the version that mainstream bookstores will sell.

  • bigsigh

    Look out liberals! There is a slippery slope here.

  • Snake Plissken

    I think it’s the cowardly way out. The shock value of the casual use of the word in the context of the times during which the book was written has value to underscore the reality of the slavery scourge in our country not that long ago. The more time that passes, the more difficult it becomes to read those words, but to try and tart up a first-person account (albeit fictional) by editing what has become a word-not-to-be-uttered to make it more palatable to modern sensibilities and political correctness is misguided. The way the word is used in Huckleberry Finn forces us to confront Jim’s status as a piece of property, which is far worse than any offense one might take from hearing it. To pass it’s use off as simply a slur is to miss the meaning.

  • Pingback: Radio tomorrow, lots of good pieces, commercials, and Homer Simpson « Laura E. Donovan

  • toomuchinfo

    We had turned a big corner in race relations with the common hip hop use of the word as in, “my nigga,” to convey friendship and commonality. But to activists, Sharpton et al, this would be giving up a serious tool for aquiring guilt induced handouts. It had to be retained as the new f-word, forbidden and powerful.

    The fact that acadamia would go along with what surely is the most insidious form of intellectual slavery, censorship, is of course par for today’s liberal agenda. Big Bro is ever present, just don’t call him the N-word!

  • kbull

    I think when blacks say it, it conotates into “always remember our slavery by the whites”. When whites say it, the meaning changes into a slur. This may very well be true, but you can’t OK it’s utterance by one group and deny its utterance by another.

  • kbull

    The ultimate cry-babys. We can use that name with each other, but don’t you be using our language.
    If anyone is keeping that word alive, it be blacks.

  • Joe Astroturf

    I think it’s a good idea and lets have Jim get a “Pigford settlement” and live happily ever after.