In an 1888 letter to George Bainton, Mark Twain wrote that “The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter — it is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” It seems that this year will bear witness to a debate about such a word choice in one of Twain’s most famous works.
NewSouth Books and noted Twain scholar, Dr. Alan Gribben, have come together to create a new edition of Huckleberry Finn in which the “N” word — present 219 times including the table of contents — is replaced with the word “slave”. Additionally, the publication will feature an edition of the Adventures of Tom Sawyer where the word “Injun” — used frequently as part of the villian’s name, “Injun Joe” — is replaced by “Indian”. The reason for such corrections? The potential to allow these tales, Huck Finn in particular, to be accessible to a new generation of readers.
Within the introduction to this edition, Gribben offers an explanation for his role in this censorship by referring to a series of “first hand experiences” that led him to believe that “an epithet-free edition of Twain’s books is necessary” for our current society:
“For nearly forty years I have led college classes, bookstore forums, and library reading groups in detailed discussions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in California, Texas, New York, and Alabama, and I always recoiled from uttering the racial slurs spoken by numerous characters, including Tom and Huck. I invariably substituted the word “slave” for Twain’s ubiquitous n-word whenever I read any passages aloud. Students and audience members seemed to prefer this expedient, and I could detect a visible sense of relief each time, as though a nagging problem with the text had been addressed.”
Gribben then goes on to point out that “numerous communities” actively ban Huckleberry Finn as required reading within public schools because of its “offensive racial language” and that he is far from the first to advocate for the removal of such language in Twain’s works. Given this context, it makes sense, according to Gribben, to do away with some of the harshness of Twain’s word choice — language that is apparently now dated and inappropriate for the times — so that this book will have the chance to be widely read again. Twain once defined a “classic” as a book “which people praise and don’t read,” and Gribben is attempting to save Huck Finn from the same fate.
However, many have argued that, in editing these words, that the “modified” Huck Finn will be loosing a large component of what made it the polarizing and critical work Twain intended it to be. Shelley Fisher Fishkin, a Stanford professor and contributor to The Room for Debate section of The New York Times website, argues that without Twain’s original words there is no way for future readers to understand the point he is trying to make: “To understand how racism works in America it is necessary to understand how this word has been used to inflict pain on black people, challenge their humanity… criticize racism effectively you have to make your reader hear how racists sound in all their offensive ugliness.” To strip Twain’s work of his its language is to strip it of its purpose – Huck Finn ceases to be Huck Finn.
NewSouth Books’ Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn is scheduled to be released in February and, regardless of which side of the argument you may find yourself on, it seems clear that any effect it may, or may, not have will only be seen following the publication.