If there is a “Great American Novel” it is, in my opinion, ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN. Hot on the heels of publishing a new book and becoming a NYT bestseller 100 years after his death, Twain gets to roll over in his grave when the presses spit out a revised edition of his masterpiece. I imagine him RITCL. That’s Rolling In The Casket Laughing. But that’s just me. Professor Allen Gribben recently told Publisher’s Weekly that in preparing an “alternative” edition of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, “My aim, then, became the rescue of these two novels for students, parents, and teachers…” which have been yanked from the curriculum in some schools because they contain racial slurs.
Most of us have studied both books. I read Tom Sawyer in grade school and junior high. Read Huck Finn in high school and college. Taught Tom Sawyer in junior high. Taught Hugh Finn in high school—generally junior year. We always discussed the language. Mind you, one of the slurs Gribben removed—Injun—is generally still spelled out, even though it isn’t used much anymore. The same can’t be said for more offensive terms like redskin and squaw, but that’s a topic for another day. I’m not about to expound on the literary virtues of Huck Finn here, but I’d love to know what you think of the need to “rescue” it in this way.
I’m not a “cusser.” The first time Mama heard me say the “n-word” was the last time I said it. I was doing an “eenie-meenie-miney-moe.” (If you’re too young to remember how that used to go, then you really must read the original version of Huck Finn, lest you believe people who recall segregation as “really not that bad.”) Anyway, Mama whisked me away from the circle of bare little feet that I was tapping around and told me in private that she had better never hear me say that word again. Yes, Mama was a Southerner, and, yes, this was before the Civil Rights Movement. (She gave me the same warning when she heard me call someone a queer some years later. She had to explain why.) The one time I hurled the f-word at my brother when we were teenagers, he busted a gut laughing. I was a bust at cussing. But some of my characters do it pretty well. It’s part of who they are, part of a circumstance that’s part of the story.
As we’re all fond of saying these days, words matter. I believe that completely. The n-word has a history. Of the many descriptors of that history, disturbing is probably one of the more understated. Gribben says that he took the n-word out of the two novels because students, parents and teachers find it “disturbing.” He worries that the books will be lost to future generations unless an alternative edition is made available. I worry about that, too. I also worry about Shakespeare being “translated” and history being rewritten.
I said I wouldn’t expound. We’re all readers here. I’ve been thinking about this since I first heard about the publication of the alternative (not abridged) versions, and I’m really interested in your thoughts. Is this censorship, or simply adapting a classic for today’s world? It’s not an easy question. Racial slurs are worse than offensive. They should make us uncomfortable. We should be disturbed by them. But what part, if any should they play in literature?