The news this week that an edition of Mark Twain’s 19th century novel will be released by NewSouth Books and Auburn University Twain scholar Alan Gribben with the ‘‘n’’ word removed and replaced by the word “slave,” is troubling. “Injun” is also excised. It’s troubling because there is no way we can deal with the history of racism and the continuing racism in this country without dealing with the ugly language that it spawns.
“Huck Finn” is one of the most frequently banned books. The literary surgery comes at the urging of Gribben, who has said that by removing the racially offensive language he hopes more people will read the book. But students of American literature, culture and history enjoy talking about the issue of race. As well they should, because that’s how we move society forward.
While the conversation about racism and racist words is never easy to have, it is often educational. In studying “Huck Finn,” students and teachers confront offensive words directly, and talk about our responses to them. Twain wanted to highlight the failure of Reconstruction to allow these new black citizens to be part of the culture. They were increasingly disenfranchised. Slavery was over, but in name only.
Gribben suggests that “Huck Finn” would be taught more often in schools if not for the use of the racially offensive language. But that doesn’t enable us to confront the issue the way we need to.
Removing the slur fails to deal with what Twain was interested in revealing. People believe that Twain was racist. In truth, he was anything but. It is his character Huck who grows up in a bath of racism. The language of racism springs from his lips because he lives in that environment. Twain encourages us to see Huck’s racism and how he changes over the course of the book.
Interestingly, the book was first banned in Boston soon after it was published in the United States not for racist language, but for its use of regional dialects. Other American classics have also been revised. A young adult edition of James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans” leaves out a large portion of the original novel, essentially rendering it a different book. In some cases, doing so for younger readers may be appropriate, but in the main, it’s not a good idea.
Literature is very often offensive and disturbing. Sometimes it is purposely so. In other instances, like with “Huck Finn,” it reminds us of historical realities from our own past.
Related on The Dew: Farewell, Injun Joe