Sanitizing Twain -- to the Nth Degree

When I saw the recent headline that Mark Twain scholar Alan Gribben was removing all the n-words from Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, my first thought was: Good! Those narratives will flow a lot better without words like neologistic, numismatic, and nanotechnology cluttering things up.

Then I thought: What if he goes too far? Do we really want all the n-words removed? Would Twain's humor and stylistic charm shine as brightly without words like Nerf and nudnik? We might even want to add some n-words. I think Huck and Tom's adventures could be spiced up considerably by more frequent use of the words naked, nude and nubile.

I became alarmed: Just how far would Gribben take this crusade? It's possible that perfectly blameless words that merely sound like n-words would fall under his editorial scalpel. How empty and lifeless would Twain's prose be without words like pneumatic, knockwurst, and gnu? It would be a tragic case of lexicographical guilt-by-association.

I resolved then and there to counter Gribben by creating my own editions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, which would consist entirely and exclusively of n-words. Of course, I'd have to change the titles to Nom Nawyer and Nuckleberry Ninn, and the author's name to Nark Nwain [née Namuel Nlemens]. I just hoped I could interest a publisher like NAL or Norton in the project. It might look silly coming from Nandom Nouse or Nimon & Nuster.

All that thinking and reacting and resolving left me exhausted. I fell back on my beanbag and tried to relax by moving beyond the headline and actually reading the accompanying story. There I learned that Gribben didn't have it in for all n-words -- just certain n-words. In particular, the n-word. A word that can lead to violence, provoke outrage, inflict pain and reduce people to tears. A word used to hurt and repress. A word weighted with centuries of racial hatred and conflict. A word with more power to make your head explode than the Ark of the Covenant.

The word is "nigger," and it appears 219 times in Huckleberry Finn alone. In each instance, Gribben has substituted the word "slave" in his edition. "I found myself right out of graduate school at Berkeley not wanting to pronounce that word when I was teaching either Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer," Gribben told the New York Times. "And I don't think I'm alone."

We've all heard that sticks and stones will break our bones but words can never hurt us. Of course it's nonsense -- words can hurt deeply. But I've always believed that words, in and of themselves, only have the power to hurt us if we grant it to them. Easy for me to say -- I've never been on the receiving end of the n-word myself (incoming for me is more likely to be "dork" or "jackass"), and history has shown that people who use the n-word are often perfectly willing to underscore it with sticks and stones and whips and chains and nooses and guns and fire hoses.

Still, there is some truth to George Carlin's observation that there is no such thing as a bad word -- just bad thoughts, bad intentions. What were Twain's intentions? He wasn't being hateful in using the n-word -- he was offering an accurate depiction of an idiom in use in the period and location he was writing about. As for his broader intentions -- well, his depiction of Jim's efforts to get to freedom can hardly be considered an endorsement of the institution of slavery. But who can be bothered considering historical context or literary themes or the author's intentions? That just sucks up precious time that could be put to better use getting offended.

Of course, the n-word is hardly limited to Twain's work -- there are plenty of other offenders around that might require attention. Charles Portis's novel True Grit is enjoying renewed popularity thanks to the new film version, and guess what? There's the n-word right on pg. 19 of my ancient Signet paperback edition -- and again on pg. 84. Mr. Gribben -- your next project! Unless it's a matter of degree. Portis's two references compared to Twain's 219 may not be sufficiently offensive to make it eligible for altering. Nor does the fact that, unlike Twain's work, Portis's is protected by copyright. Or that unlike Twain, Portis is still around to object.

Perhaps we could take on the rap music industry, where the n-word is ubiquitous -- even celebrated -- and then perhaps go after any number of stand-up specials on HBO and Comedy Central. And Jabari Asim, author of The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn't, and Why -- better watch out -- we may be coming for you too!

Or we could take another approach: Just leave it alone. Once you start sanitizing it's hard to know where to stop. Huckleberry Finn is a product of its time. Hate it, debate it, deplore it, ignore it, but don't take it upon yourself to change it to suit your own mores and values. I suspect that if Twain were alive today, he'd have another n-word for someone who presumed to rewrite his work: Knucklehead.