The Vandalism of Huckleberry Finn

Alabama publisher NewSouth Books is preparing to release a new version of Mark Twain’s classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, edited to remove a couple of words that offend modern ears.  One of them is “injun,” and the other is now considered acceptable only in rap songs and Quentin Tarantino films.

The offending n-world will be replaced by “slave,” which will make it read like a cornpone version of Spartacus.  For example, readers will be able to enjoy this melodious passage about the hat belonging to Huckleberry’s friend N… uh, Slave Jim:

“Jim was monstrous proud about it, and he got so he wouldn’t hardly notice the other slaves.  Slaves would come miles to hear Jim tell about it, and he was more looked up to than any slave in that country.  Strange slaves would stand with their mouths open and look him all over, same as if he was a wonder.”

NewSouth Books calls this a “bold and compassionate move” to “counter pre-emptive censorship,” according to the UK Guardian’s story about the release.  The idea is that teachers don’t like saying the N-word out loud, or forcing students to say it, so the book has been tragically expunged from many classes.  Were they also having trouble saying “injun?”

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

This is an interesting observation.  Why would the offending language become more of an affront, even as institutionalized racism fades from reality, to memory, and finally to history?  It’s an ugly word, to be sure, but people do use it all the time.  Those who should be most affronted spend a great deal of money buying songs which are heavily salted with this word.

The controversy here is really about who says the N-word, not the word itself.  It would seem Mark Twain is no longer an authorized user.  His own life was a concise summary of American enlightenment on slavery and racism.  His father sometimes worked as a slave trader, and his uncle owned twenty slaves.  Twain said some disgusting things in his youth, and committed some of them to paper.  Then he witnessed the brutal murder of a slave, and he changed.  Huckleberry Finn is, after all, the story of a white boy helping a slave to escape.

Twain knew exactly what the word “slave” meant.  He once said, “The skin of every human being contains a slave.”  A little over 200 times in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he used a different word, one that was common in his day.  Pretending it wasn’t does not enhance anyone’s understanding of the past. 

The study of history requires a measure of courage, because the student will not always like what he sees.  Dr. Gribben’s motivation is understandable, but students are better served with difficult truth than easy ignorance.  We’ve already convinced ourselves to forget about far too much that has come before… and we spend too much time reeling in surprise when it comes around again.  It’s an encouraging sign that so many people experience discomfort when saying the N-word.  It would be even better if this discomfort was universal.