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

Laura Donovan Contributor
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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.

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