Is It Editing, Revising, Updating, Adapting, or Censoring?


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.

Huckleberry_Finn_book 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?


About Kathleen Eagle

Kathleen Eagle is the award-winning, New York Times best-selling author of over forty novels.
This entry was posted in great American novel, literature, mark twain, racial slur. Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to Is It Editing, Revising, Updating, Adapting, or Censoring?

  1. Kylie Brant says:

    Absolutely agree with you a thousand percent, Kathleen! Huck Finn is one of my top three favorite books. I can’t begin to recall the number of times I’ve read it over the years. I’m still aghast that the book is being censored after all this time. And a part of me can’t believe the hypocrisy–it’s fine to let kids watch reality shows featuring immoral twenty-somethings or teens who make poor choices week after week. Those shows air without the framework of adult daily discussion and explanation. But we have to rescue kids from reading the N-word in a literary classic? Please.

  2. michelehauf says:

    If the current, proper form of addressing a superior was ‘Dude’, would we go back and change that in all the books? This is so ridiculous. It is an example of the time period, and it should not be changed. I think the book should be taught with that in mind, but we shouldn’t be changing the words of the greats. Or even the not-so-greats.

  3. One of the timeless themes of Huck Finn is hypocrisy, and the very fact that anyone thinks that changing a couple of words makes the book more acceptable for today’s readers shows how little we’ve learned about that particular human flaw in 125 years. Back in the late 19th century do-gooders adopted the mantra, “Kill the Indian, save the man.” I’m wondering whether “sanitizing” Huck Finn is a case of, “Kill the masterpiece, save the book.” Or am I overstating?

  4. LSUReader says:

    This is censorship. It is ugly, unnecessary and overwhelmingly pretentious. Time changes things. It is acceptable for modern thought, morals and forms of address to be different than they were centuries ago. How hypocritical it is for any publisher to suggest that we no longer should have access to a book in its original, accepted form. Will we next edit history, to make it more palatable in today’s political environment?

    • Unfortunately, many Powers That Be love to rewrite history. If the Holocaust denyers had their way…

    • A. Marina Fournier says:

      I believe Texas (and other revisionist states) textbooks, those who write them, and those who adopt them, are trying to do just that: edit history, to make it conform to their ideas of what history should have been.

      I pity the fools…as I do those who learn creationism, or that pi =3.0, and other such “educational” practices masquerading as “fact” in K-12, when they get to a college or profession that doesn’t hold with such nonsense. They will suffer culture shock like nobody’s business!

  5. Jody Vitek says:

    I agree with all that has been said. When I first heard this, I was appalled and still am. What happened to freedom of speech? As an author, we have rights to protect our works of art. They are changing Mark Twain’s work of art. This angers me! Maybe we need to go in and fix Picasso’s painting because they’re all a jumble. Wake up people and leave the artists and their art alone. This goes for the rappers who rap and sing using the ‘n’ word. I may not like what and how they’re singing, but it’s my ultimate choice whether to listen or not to what they’re saying.
    Okay Kathy, you got me all heated and I’ve vented. Great topic and a bold move to put it out for discussion.

  6. Paula Shene says:

    We have conceded our right to be uncensored when we allow groups to say “you offend me with your speech and words.” and allow them to cause an action to change the course of history.

    I am a Northerner with Southern and “Injun” and other roots. I grow up in a home where there was prejudice stated but not practiced – I refused to embrace finding it hard to believe that only my five root background was acceptable.

    A lot of people think only whites are prejudice; that is not so. I have always found prejudice {on a one to one basis} to be a ‘stupid’ act perpetrated by fear of the unknown. Of course it is used widely by governments in control to commit atrocities such as genocide.

    It would be better to teach our children that these words are offensive to segments of society and therefore are offensive to us. As Kylie said re the reality shows {who’s reality? The local slut and pimp…oops, the local girl about town and her great protector.} These shows promote the rude, crude, and dregs which one hopes not to live in but our children, if unsupervised are the losers. I found the best supervision was to watch a show with them and discuss the points of offensiveness – this started with Saturday morning cartoons. But, censorship is better left to the family not the government.

    When we are willing to allow rights to be stripped from someone {or books} because it offends us, then be prepared to have your rights taken when someone takes offense with you.

    This is censorship plain and simple.

  7. catslady says:

    Everyone else said it so eloquently and I totally agree. This is censorship and I’m aghast that they would change anything. People just love to put their head in the sand and pretend certain things never happened and still aren’t happening!! If you don’t talk about it or see it, it just isn’t there. And, of course, no one learns a darn thing (big, big sigh). j

  8. Heather says:

    It is definitely censorship. The fact that some words are disturbing is exactly why they should NOT be removed. Without them, you lose a teachable moment about how important the words we use are, about what is appropriate and how words can hurt.

  9. lois greiman says:

    I agree it is cencorship. But let’s keep in mind that no one on this blog has once actually written ‘the n word’. If it’s too terrible for us to even mention, it very probably IS diminishing the readership of Twain’s most popular work. Is it worth the change to see it better accepted by the masses?

    • Point taken, Lois. I thought about this when I wrote the post and decided not to write the word because the blog belongs to 10 of us, and I’m not sure how search engines actually work, didn’t want to get us in trouble. It’s probably the most incediary word out there right now. While I don’t use the word and never have (except when I didn’t know any better) it feels silly for a responsible, mature professional to write “the n-word” when discussing the word itself. Still, I thought twice, and the second time I opted for a little discretion.

      It’s not an an easy question when a) you’re not a person of color and b) you want to get that book into the hands of every student. There are so many words that stand for such terrible aspects of human behavior. What’s the opposite of “the better angels of our nature”? Not angels, that’s for sure. But substituting the word for “slave” changes the message. Slavery ended in 1863. We still have to deal with the discomfort the “n-word” causes us. Huck Finn speaks to that very issue, but if the word is removed…

      Humor was Twain’s rapier, and i do think he’d laugh at the idea of satitizing his book. This isn’t the same as adapting it for younger readers–although Huck Finn is not a children’s book. But it is definitely a book for high school students. We shouldn’t sell them short.

  10. So many good points, I can hardly add more. Someone did mention – what next rewriting history books. Sadly enough, much of the history we are taught in school is censored. Did we learn that many of our “heroic” early explorers of America committed apartheid? I’m not surprised that someone wants to leave out parts of Mark Twains works. But saddened. The fact that we do not use the n word in our work and do not even say it here, is merely a sign of our times. That doesn’t mean it should be stripped from MT’s work.

    Great topic!!

  11. A. Marina Fournier says:

    It is one thing to offer “modern or “revised for greater understanding” New and Old Testaments and the Apocrypha–what true, original, or complete sources have we got? Whether or not you believe these works to be the absolute “word of G*d”, directly from G*d, they have been edited throughout history, by falible MEN, who decided which scrolls to keep and which to leave, when having to move or outright flee. So, one or a dozen more edits/retellings? No biggie. If I’m going to read that collection, the (Oxford?) Revised Standard Version, with its footnotes on language usage and translations, would be it. Then there are the several different versions of the Ten Commandments…but I’m Pagan, not a member of the Peoples of the Book, and we have no similar “holy books”.

    I took a Shakespeare class in college to justify buying the one volume Riverside Shakespeare, which I still have. Original wording, lots of footnotes. Revision of his works to aid modern undertanding? Pablum fed to those who don’t really want to learn the glory of his language.

    The US Constitution apparently has several different versions–this makes me a bit uncomfortable, given what I’ve learned of thse differences with the recent Congressional readings of one of them.

    Shall we revise Swift’s satiric classic, A Modest Proposal? Do we ditch the recipes I’m told are included? Its satire is sometimes missed by readers, who then find it very offensive. Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake? Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren? Orwell’s Animal Farm or 1984? Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World? Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451* (to which Mel Gibson owns at least the movie rights)? They’re awfully political, and timely, and may not suit some readers. Ban them? Revise them? Forfend!

    I hope not! Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, with a young boy’s belief in the right thing to do though most believed that it was wrong, is a clear view of the thought of that time, and to revise it is censorship and revisionist history. Bad idea!

    *The CA Penal Code section for arson is 451.

    • Marina, how did Gibson come to own the rights to Farenheit 451? I can’t see him improving on the 1966 version with Julie Christie and Oskar Werner. It’s a must-see, IMO. The book is really timely.

      Your comments are so interesting. I cling to the King James version of the Bible because the language is beautiful. As far as I know, there is only one version of the U.S. Constitution. It replaced the Articles of Confederation, and it has been amended. It was not read in its entirety when the House convened–they left out some of the parts they didn’t like, like the 3/5 rule for slaves. Again, revisionist history. We need to remember where we’ve been, what we’ve done, and how we’ve evolved, because we’re not done yet. That’s the beauty of the Constitution–it’s not carved in stone.

      • A. Marina Fournier says:

        I believe Gibson optioned the film rights–I’m guessing here, as I don’t eem to be able to find the backstory on this one.

  12. Leanne Banks says:

    I’m bummed, though I am more likely to use the F word than the N word. I think of it as watering down the original. However, I’m not sure Huck Finn should be anymore immune than the Bible…. That said, I was sad to hear this news. I’m hoping most won’t go for the cleaned-up version.

    • Me, too, Leanne. And most won’t. I hope those who do (or must) will discuss the issue. That will be an added benefit–the discussion, and the fact that kids will go looking for the original out of curiosity.

  13. A. Marina Fournier says:

    Sorry, Kathleen, I forgot part of my response to you.

    It has been years since I’ve looked in a Bible, and I can’t recall, from my youth, what the language of the RSV is like. The KJV does have beautiful language, but the translation is dicey, as mapping some concept-words to modern equivalents in that version (at the very least) were politically chosen to suit the policies of the Crown & the CofE at the time.

    I see a living document’s evolution as rather different than changing a work of literature. I know some authors have revised their own work later in life, and that’s their privilege–but I’d want to see both versions, perhaps in a parallel format.

  14. A. Marina Fournier says:

    Do-Overs: 10 speculative fiction books that got major rewrites after they were published

    This dovetails with the censorship/Huck Finn “revision” issue, and I briefly touched on it in an earlier comment.

    Another excellent article by Charlie Jane Anders. She runs a salon of sorts called Writers with Drinks, on the second Saturday of the month at a bar in San Francisco. One never knows what will happen–but the bar can’t make a White Russian, unless you think that soy milk is a good substitute for cream (shudder).

    • Marina, thanks so much for your interesting and thoughtful commentary. The link is fascinating–had no idea some of those had been revised by the authors. I know Betina Krahn (one of our riders) revised at least one of her earlier hidtoricals for publication and enjoyed the process. I was asked whether I wanted to make changes in the 2 stories in my December book, A CERTAIN KIND OF HERO. After re-reading, I decided not to. The original copyright date will clue readers in to why there’s no cell phone, etc.

      • A. Marina Fournier says:

        Thanks, Kathleen. BTW, I got here through a post on the Romance Readers Anonymous list (RRA-l).

        When I was working in libraries as a student, and for a bit after graduation, censorship was more a matter of banned books than anything else. This is a twist not considered with much credibility then. The movement for more gender-inclusive language in religious works and rituals was starting about then, IIRC. I don’t consider that censorship. but I may be biased on that matter.

        The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that this particular kind of revision to Huck Finn represents a well-meaning but misguided attempt to shield some kids from idiots who can’t think about what they’re reading in class, and then turn on black students to make fun of them or just to be mean, because “after all, that was the attitude of the book we just read”. Surely study guides could be written and issued to teachers and pertinent administrators to help them teach the satiric elements of the book, the attitude of Huck, and his ultimate decision based on experience instead of prevailing attitudes, and parallels in students’ own experiences. Heck, talk about miscegenation and how that changed in the US over the years and how long the laws were still on the books. Talk about attitudes of biracial couples today, even. See if there would have even been a novel like this written by Mark Twain had the attitudes of whites towards other races not been so destructive to people of those other races…and so on. No, I am NOT going to write that study guide!

        [Aside: Jane Austen’s books would have been completely different if she hadn’t seen so many examples of men not fulfilling their legal obligations, especially financial ones, toward their widows, children and other dependents.]

        This “revision” is essentially dumbing down a work of literature. It doesn’t remind me of Bowdlerizing as much as it reminds me of 1984, and what was done to language and to books.

  15. debradixon says:

    I’m late to the party but I absolutely think words matter. And I absolutely think we can’t sanitize fiction. This gives me a headache…a lot.

    I actually just deleted a ton of text here because I honestly am too conflicted on this issue. I’ll have to go think some more.

  16. ForestJane says:

    What’s even more disturbing to me is that my teen fantasy game playing friends on facebook see no problem with evading the censors by misspelling the n-word. There’s lots of variations, niqqah being one of the most common. I’ve tried suggesting to them that if it’s so bad that they can’t say it in polite company or spell the thing on fb, then why use it?

    They’re convinced that it’s a term of endearment, almost. They like the fact that it’s a word only they can use. “You can call me bro, or dude, but only another niqqah can call me a niqqah.” It’s a power thing.

    • That’s interesting, Jane. It comes down to respect and trust, not to mention being able to set your own boundaries. And history, of course. The term ‘skin might be comparable in Indian Country. Redskin is offensive, has an offensive history. ‘Skin was popularized back in the ’70’s, claimed by American Indians for American Indians. Therein lies the power. Self-determination.

  17. Miki says:

    While I have no interest in reading this sanitized version of the book, I remember having “children’s” copies of these books when I was kid, and I would bet that they never had that word in them. It was a “bad word” even way back when I was a kid, and I think I would have remembered it (even if for all the wrong reasons, kids being kids).

    My thoughts on this are that I don’t ever have to read it. I don’t ever have to recommend anyone else reads it. The original version will remain available (thank god, yes?)

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