Publishing company NewSouth wants to remove the N word entirely from the book, replacing it with “slave,” and change the word “Injun.”
The effort is spearheaded by Twain expert Alan Gribben, who says his PC-ified version is not an attempt to neuter the classic but rather to update it. “Race matters in these books,” Gribben told PW. “It’s a matter of how you express that in the 21st century.”
“Twain expert”? I don’t think so.
I’m not a Twain expert, either, but I grew up in a small city called Elmira, New York. Elmira has a few claims to fame: a notorious Civil War prison camp, Eileen Collins, Tommy Hilfiger, Ernie Davis, Judge Jeanine Pirro and Mark Twain. Twain married Olivia Langdon, whose family was from Elmira. He spent a significant amount of time there, wrote much of his work in the study his sister-in-law built on her property and is buried there.
That means from the time I started kindergarten until the day I graduated high school, I had Mark Twain shoved down my throat on a pretty regular basis. I’m over the resentment enough to realize he’s a pretty big deal and was a really amazing writer, speaker and philosopher. And the result is that I know way more about him than a lot of people. Apparently, “a lot of people” includes a certain “expert.”
Let’s start with the fact that Twain was a staunch abolitionist. He believed in equality, even in the days before Civil Rights.
No one could accurately describe the man as a racist. In fact, Twain’s empathy for other living beings ran more deeply than that. He and Olivia had six children. The road to the Quarry Farm, the property on which his study sat, was long and uphill. He commissioned six water troughs, each inscribed with one of his children’s names, to line the road to ensure horses pulling wagons up the hill had plenty to quench their thirst as they worked hard for their people.Now let’s look at Twain the writer. As a non-racist, he was well aware of the derogatory meaning of the N word. He was also not a writer who threw words on a page willy-nilly just to see what sounded good. He chose his words very carefully and with great purpose. Many seem to think he used the N word and the word Injun simply because they were part of the dialect at the time. While that’s true and certainly part of why he used them, there’s more to his reasoning than that simplification of the novel.
Twain chose those words for a reason. He used it 200 times for a reason. He was both humanizing a man who to the rest of the country was nothing but chattel to be used and abused and thrown away like a farm animal (and I’m not OK with that, either, but that’s not the point of this post) and showing Americans (and the rest of the world) a blunt, in-your-face portrait of cruelty. Twain was making a point. And a good one.
Eliminating those words from the text fundamentally changes the book. It changes the novel from being a powerful and overwhelming political statement calling for change to just another book that people enjoy reading. It also eliminates from our society a strong and important portrait of American history. It’s not a pretty part of our history, but hiding it won’t change that it happened. It might even cause future generations to look more lightly on American slavery and persecution of both blacks and American Indians.
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
— George Santayana
One argument in favor of the whitewash of the novel is that it’s been banned in many schools because of the N word. The publisher sees a market for the “cleaned-up” version. I say phooey on that. I’d rather read and discuss the book at home with my child than have it taught in an edited state. My reasons are pretty clear above: it is not the same book and does not convey the same message after editing. Besides, anyone who would ban the book for those words doesn’t understand the book or Twain’s purpose in writing it. Anyone so ignorant shouldn’t teach it.
And banning the book outright gives people a more concrete issue to fight against. That means something.
I hope the backlash against the white-washed version of Huckleberry Finn forces the publisher to give up and stop printing it. And while I don’t think I’ve ever before been in favor of burning books, I wouldn’t be against burning every published copy of this one that unfortunately makes it into print.