Huck Finn, censorship & revisionist history

The news that Mark Twain's classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is being edited to excise the word nigger and injun, a racially insensitive word for Native Americans, is disturbing. Alabama-based publisher NewSouth is re-issuing the book with the blessing of Twain scholar Alan Gribben, an English professor at Auburn University.

Gribben argues that removing the offensive language will make the story more palatable in the 21st century without making the story "colorblind." Gribben also hopes Twain's book will return to classroom reading lists, since many schools have banned it because of the racially charged words.

As a professor, it appears Gribben is missing the "teachable moment" and, as a Twain scholar, ignoring the fact that Twain was an abolitionist and supported emancipation. Huckleberry Finn is an indictment of racial prejudice written at a time shortly after the Civil War when emancipation had caused a rift between black and white that continues today – whether we want to acknowledge it or not.

The publication of this altered version is both revisionist history and censorship. It sets a dangerous precedent for literature. Is Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird next? What about the work of Alice Walker and Toni Morrison? If we ban the word nigger from literature, should we ban Kanye, Jay-Z and all the other rappers who use it regularly in their music? Should Patti Smith's classic "Rock N' Roll Nigger" be revised to calm our frayed nerves?

In 100 years time, will the work being written today be censored and "revised" because the words and topics are unpleasant? Will the word faggot be removed from literature? Will Larry Kramer's 1978 novel Faggots be retitled Homosexual or Gay to mollify homophobic guilt? Will books by Armistead Maupin and other GBLT authors be rewritten? How about biographies like The Life and Times of Harvey Milk? When you begin to censor, where does it stop? I think you know the answer.

More than 40 years on from the Civil Rights Movement, America is loathe to talk about race. It makes people uncomfortable, it causes rifts and arguments. Taking a classic piece of literature and removing its historical context is not only ridiculous, but further proof that some Americans would rather sweep the past under the rug without understanding how that past still resonates today.

This also speaks to a larger issue: public domain of literature. If Twain's estate still held copyright control, you can bet they would have never let this travesty occur. Work published in the US before 1923 has fallen into public domain, which means it can be revised, rewritten, re-imagined by anyone without recrimination.

Professor Gribben said he believes that replacing the word nigger with slave will counter censorship of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Censorship to prevent censorship? It's political correctness run amok and a sorry day for literature, race relations and history.


Zach said…
Spot on, Collin. This is less, to me, about literary infringement than it is about losing historical context. It also certifies that the concept of satire, to many, is a lost art.
Nancy Devine said…
my high school creative writing students were aware of this today, and they were disgusted by the prospect of Huck Finn being changed. (these kids are terrific on a number of levels)
Jessie Carty said…
This is the best write up I've heard on this issue! Looking forward to sharing it with my blog readers :)
Justin Evans said…
I regularly teach Huck Finn to my students, and I will refuse to use any version which attempts to soften the language Twain used. My students are certainly smart enough to undersatand me when I explain the difference between my saying the word "nigger" as it pertains to discussion of the book, and if I ever used the word in casual conversation. This isn't just about PC gone moronic, it's shit like this that contributes to the dumbing down of America.
Sandy Longhorn said…
Wonderfully said. Thanks for this thoughtful response to a disturbing situation.
jessica said…
The language is vernacular of the era, and in this era, furthers the discussion of race, perception, and boundaries.

The discussion that NEEDS to be had is with those who would - and do - censor this and other books.

Wasn't Huck Finn also banned at one point because of a perceived homosexual relationship between Huck and Jim?

Wish Twain were here to sound off on this.
Maureen said…
Not so long ago, I posted a link to the list of books and authors banned in the United States alone. The number was huge and appalling.

Sometimes, I just despair.
Good post, Collin.
‎"Censorship is telling a man he can't have a steak just because a baby can't chew it." Mark Twain. Gotta Iove it...

But no one is saying you can't read the original. It's just censoring it for the classroom, you know "for the kids."

You can read it onIine in it's originaI form for free. The book is well into the public domain since it was published 127 years ago. I'm not a copyright expert but I think there's a good chance that this an aII an excuse to seII the essay at the beginning of this edition that 'Frankly discusses Twain’s use of nigger and the choice to replace it with slave.'

Here's the official instructions on how to get a new copyright on public domain books,

'New Copyright

There is a possibility that you could use public domain books to create a new product that you could obtain a new copyright on. This of course will entail more than simply writing a couple of lines and calling it new. For example, you could take an old comic strip, create a commentary about each strip and how it spoke to the political, social or religious aspects of the era, and obtain a new copyright on the whole.'

Either way I feel safe in saying that it's a marketing ploy, but since this Machiavellian sculptor’s clandestine and intricately carved conspiracy is an attempt to get people read Twain I'm fine with it.

The fact that this is one of America's most banned books has helped keep it topical. The only reason that I read 1984 was that I was told that I wasn't allowed to.
The very fact that is has been banned for being supportive of racial integration and then in the same year for containing offensive racial epithets makes it a fascinating work.
Garry said…
I am sure that there are many other oldies that have to be censored but i guess this is a good start! I am sure Mark Twain is turning over in his grave!!!
Garry said…
I am sure that there are many other oldies that have to be censored but i guess this is a good start! I am sure Mark Twain is turning over in his grave!!!
Cleo said…
My only defense of this still lies in the fact that the meaning and context of the word today has completely changed from the word as Twain and that era used it.

Though "slave" seems overly sanitized, I might have gone for "darkie" maybe "negroe".

I just can't see denying African American kids the enjoyment of the book because they can't get past the "n" word, that they've been brought up to believe is unacceptable.

HuffPo has an interesting article on this as well, showing how this has happened to many other books over the years. "Doctor Dolittle" apparently had some racially charged language, in the original "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" the oompa loompas were originally pitch black african pygmies. The whole Burroughs "Tarzan" series had harsh racial language edited out. There's even a term for this "Bowdlerization" after a editor who released a heavily edited and sanitized version of Shakespeare's work.
T. Clear said…
Precise and to the point. I've posted a link to this post on facebook. Thanks, Collin!
Christine said…
Great article, Collin, especially since Twain's autobiography just came out.
Val said…
I completely agree with you Collin. You've articulated the trend toward a dangerous precedent to sanitize past realities. When history is rewritten, it is often repeated. Words that are racially insulting are not and should be the issue, but the lack of respect and ignorance behind their initial creation should be. This is where Twain shines a bright light through the use of satire and wit. He was ahead of his time and if here were here today he wouldn't be surprised because he was a realistic cynic. If we are going to cleanse books because of the use of insulting language and cementing of stereotype, perhaps we should begin with the bible. Lots of stuff in there that is probably the root of all our racial and sexual intolerance and bigotry.

Thank you Collin for a wonderfully concise and relevant post.
Randall Weiss said…
Last Spring, I read Conrad's Heart of Darkness for a class I was taking. We also read an essay by Chinua Achebe that decries the text as racist and suggests it be pulled from the common Western literary cannon.
Most of my classmates, including myself, made that argument that Achebe is looking at the text through modern eyes and that it would be disingenuous to remove the text based off today's standards of prejudice.
Like Twain, Conrad was racially progressive for his time.
Censorship and revisionist history serve no one.
Man Martin said…
They're also editing Dostoevsky's THE IDIOT to avoid giving offense to the intelectually challenged. It will just be called THE.
boros1124 said…
What will be next? Tom Sawyer? A lot of literature ought to censor books. The historical films do not stay up. I'm going for sure and I prefer those without a censorship now.

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