The New Adventure of Huckleberry Finn

Professor Alan Gribben, a scholar at Auburn University's Montgomery campus who specializes in the work of Mark Twain, is editing a combined edition of Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). In addition to a new introduction, Gribben's main editorial contribution has been to remove the N-word from both books and replace it with the word "slave." Predictably, this has led to heated debates about issues like Twain's intent, the nature of texts, and censorship.

Let me be clear up front. I actually have no problem with what Gribben is doing. Artists, editors, and scholars re-work texts all the time in various ways that are designed to clarify understanding, take artistic license, or better appeal to the marketplace. Think of all the different English translations of the Bible (dozens), of all the various productions of Shakespeare, of Andy Warhol's Marilyn Monroe portraits, or of Francis Scott Key writing the "Star Spangled Banner" to the tune of the English drinking song "To Anacreon in Heaven."

This is not the work of some prudish vandal using a Sharpie to black-out the genitalia on an original painting by Michelangelo. Nor is it the FBI or CIA redacting vital information on documents it must grudgingly release because of a Freedom of Information Act request. Gribben is not a state actor, and he is not prohibiting or even discouraging people from acquiring the original versions of these books. Simply put, his actions are not censorious; they are editorial. And those are not the same thing. Indeed, to prevent Gribben and his publisher from issuing his edition, that would be censorship.

In fact, Gribben is in his own way attempting to counter widespread censorship of the books, which have been banned from public and school libraries throughout America because of their liberal use of the N-word. It's an old story for Finn, which was first censored in America the year it debuted here (1885, one year after it was published in England) when the Concord, MA Public Library refused to carry it. Sadly, contemporary critics were all too comfortable with racism and therefore less concerned with the N-word, which appears more than 200 times in the book, than they were with what was considered to be generally coarse and vulgar language.

Since then, Huckleberry Finn has typically led the pack in being the target of parents, teachers, librarians, and various social critics who want certain materials removed from libraries and K-12 curricula. As such, the book keeps good company, joining other classics of American literature such as To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, and The Color Purple. So in editing the books he cherishes so much, Gribben is attempting to make them more accessible to high school students by creating an edition that won't be banned from many schools.

What's more, I am generally sympathetic to parents who want to have a say in what their children are exposed to. Though I have no children of my own, it seems reasonable to me to expect that parents will want some control over their children's interaction with very adult topics like sex, violence, racial epithets, and so forth. I might not agree with that approach, but parents rightfully have wide discretion in raising their own children and some will attempt to prevent their children from encountering material they consider inappropriate or hurtful.

However, all of that being said, I quite disagree with the idea of assigning Gribben's new edition in the classroom in lieu of Twain's original. After all, we're not talking about seven year olds in the park staring at a dirty magazine that one of them stole from their parents. We are talking about post-pubescent teenagers, as Huckleberry Finn is most commonly found in high school curricula, and we are talking about a 125-year-old historical text that also happens to be one of the most highly regarded pieces of American fiction ever written.

Going one step further, there is an argument to be made that the original version should be taught in schools, not despite its frequent use of the N-word, but because of it. Students cannot be sheltered forever, and indeed in many cases cannot be sheltered for very long. And where better to learn about and discuss the delicacies of life than in a school with a professionally trained teacher?

Furthermore, the idea that the N-word can be can be effectively quarantined from the English language is, at the present time, absolutely ludicrous. The word is frequently used in both high- and low-brow art ranging from theatrical productions to stand-up comedy to popular music. And even more importantly, the word is frequently used in everyday speech by millions of Americans in many contexts. And in most of those contexts it is not being used as an insult. Rather, several variations on the N-word have become commonplace, particularly among poor and working class Americans of all colors.

In stating this, I am neither attacking nor defending such uses of the word. I am merely stating what has become obvious, but which many people are reticent to openly acknowledge. That a word, which has been and can be one of the most hurtful and insulting in the entire language, has developed a variety of nuanced usages and has become an entrenched part of speech for millions of Americans, black, white, and otherwise.

So in the end, I am very sympathetic to Professor Gribben, a man who has devoted his life to studying Twain, who wants to see this seminal American author's work more widely disseminated, and who has seen the hurt in the eyes of people when he gives public readings of the original material. I even applaud his effort to find a way to broaden Twain's appeal. But at the same time, I come down firmly on the side of those who want to see the original Twain text assigned in American classrooms, where students can encounter it in a responsible environment and have mature, thoughtful, and challenging discussions about the nature of American society in both the late 19th century and today.