Huckleberry Finn: One Word Does Make A Difference

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn first published in England in December 1884 and in the United States in February 1885.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn first published in England in December 1884 and in the United States in February 1885.

Once again, a gusty wind of bowdlerization is sweeping across the literary landscape. Only this time it is coming from a most unlikely source. An English professor is collaborating with an Alabama publisher to reprint both Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer in a single volume. The announcement sent tremors through the publication world when it heard the new edition will replace the words "nigger" and "injun" with other terms more acceptable in today’s society. Unfortunately, the intense hoopla swirling around these two words is diverting attention from another serious liberty being taken. A sizable section of the original manuscript is being re-inserted in total defiance of the author’s decision to remove it prior to the first publication.

Dr. Alan Gribben  Dept Head and Prof., Auburn University at Montgomery, 1991-present  (Image courtesy Amazon.com)
Dr. Alan Gribben Dept Head and Prof., Auburn University at Montgomery, 1991-present (Image courtesy Amazon.com)

At the Epicenter is Dr. Alan Gribben, a recognized Twain scholar on the faculty of Auburn University at Montgomery, and NewSouth Books, publishers of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and folklore about the South. Together, they have triggered a ground swell of criticism aimed at Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: The NewSouth Edition, edited by Dr. Gribben. "Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a classic by most any measure," says Publishers Weekly. "Yet, for decades, it has been disappearing from grade school curricula across the country, relegated to optional reading lists, or banned outright, appearing again and again on lists of the nation's most challenged books, and all for its repeated use of a single, singularly offensive word: ‘nigger’."

Prof. Gribben has watched the steady decline of Twain’s exposure in classrooms across America. He is intense about restoring Huck Finn to its rightful place in the public school curriculum and he defends his decision to change the text in the preface of the new edition. "I believe that a significant number of school teachers, college instructors, and general readers will welcome the option of an edition of Twain’s fused novels that spares the reader from a racial slur that never seems to lose its vitriol."

Mark Twains Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: The NewSouth Edition, edited by Dr. Gribben.  (Image courtesy New South Books)
Mark Twains Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: The NewSouth Edition, edited by Dr. Gribben. (Image courtesy New South Books)

Does the End Justify the Means?

Many of Dr. Gribben’s critics strongly disagree with his position. Most say they admire his noble purpose but reject his claim the end justifies the means. Overwhelming opposition is appearing everywhere and much of it calls his tampering with an American icon a perversion of political correctness. He is accused of caving in to a social agenda. To many, his capitulation is an insult to the talents of an acclaimed American novelist recognized for choosing his words with extraordinary care. Some of his colleagues are challenging his empathy for educators in the "new classroom" unable to deal with racial and social issues. They say he is rewarding lazy teachers and diminishing the importance of skillful teachers.

The N-Word

The word, while challenging to so many of today’s teachers, had a different effect around 1840. In Huck’s day, it found wide use and broad acceptance on every level of society and in all parts of the country. Often heard in speech and seen repeatedly in print, this word became woven into the tapestry of the era along with "buckboard", "outhouse", and "spittoon". The word implied neither complement nor slur. It described everyone of African decent be they free, slave, or indentured but it began to add layers of bitterness after the Emancipation Proclamation and years of Jim Crow.

Illustration from the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Illustration from the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

In Reality

Mark Twain realized the word had become deeply embedded in the vernacular of each new and oblivious generation. In addition, his control of the language made him keenly aware of the literary penalties for redundancy. Still, he chose to use "nigger" 218 times, and once in the table of contents, to expose the pervasive and unconscious mindset in the Deep South at the time of Huck and Jim’s journey on the Mississippi. The repetition begs the reader to ask why children and adults alike used such a term. It also elevates Huck’s role in Jim’s escape from the South to an ethical level, making it a moral decision contrary to the norms of the day. A choice having significant, life altering consequences.

In History

Like the Trail of Tears, or the Invasion of Mexico, or the Japanese-American Internment, slavery is one of the reprehensible realities found in America's past. Not only is Huckleberry Finn a brilliant reflection of its time, it is a record of history. The novel is a word portrait acclaimed for capturing the ugliness of slavery. To change its words is to change the portrait. Changing the portrait rewrites history. To fulfill its commitment to justice for all, America’s history can not, and should not, be denied. Each new generation must be willing to forgive and anxious to heal. But to remain free, it must always remember the errors in the past.

In Exile

It is quite extraordinary to watch this controversy swirling around the reality and history associated with a single word. "Nigger" has come to represent an attitude so evil it is banished from the vocabulary. A fate reserved for the vilest of terms. It has become a literary leper not just shunned in print and speech but forbidden under all but a few circumstances. It has been expelled from many dictionaries, had its spelling corrupted, and its usage camouflaged by euphemisms. Like most taboos, it has not become extinct, just invisible. Using the more tolerated "n-word", like using "g-d", "!@#$%&" and other contrivances, has become the only device available to convey the meaning a writer wishes he could avoid.

Samuel L. Clemens / Mark Twain
Samuel L. Clemens / Mark Twain

Words and The Right of Authorship

This word evokes intense emotions and this is reason enough to avoid it in a modern context. However, any writer today, including Twain if alive, could not avoid it to depict the texture of mid-1800 society. For Dr. Gribben to purge it from the narrative of Huckleberry Finn because of its vitriol is to deny Mark Twain his artistic right to control the novel he authored. The net effect transforms this masterpiece, written more than 125 years ago by Mark Twain, into a work by Mark Twain and Dr. Alan Gribben. Sharing the right of authorship is one thing Samuel Langhorne Clemens would not likely have encouraged or endorsed.

Unjustified Censorship

Without Mark Twain’s approval, the entire venture becomes an exercise to promote political correctness and a modest profit. But political correctness, like all forms of censorship, is intended to encroach on somebody’s freedom. For this reason, it must be condemned unless (1) it protects liberty, or (2) provides justice, and in either case, (3) it’s proven to be best and the only means available to achieve (1) or (2).

Replacing 219 occurrences of one word within a national treasure published more than a century ago does not protect Mark Twain’s authorship rights. This endeavor obviously does not protect liberty. Nor does it correct any of the wrongs created by racial inequality. It obviously does not provide justice either. And, in the final analysis, even if one of these conclusions proves to be untrue, it would become necessary to insure Prof. Gribben’s brand of censorship is in fact the only remedy available. Since classroom exposure is at the core of Dr. Gribben’s rationale, it fails to justify his censorship of the original text.

What next?

So what can be expected in the aftermath of all this fuss over replacing two of Mark Twain’s carefully chosen words? NewSouth Books will produce their version of the Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: The NewSouth Edition, edited by Dr. Alan Gribben. They will have "slave" and "Indian" replacing the original text. Teachers may again have the opportunity to introduce Mark Twain to younger students without having to educate them about the missing words.

But, tomorrow’s young readers will be the ones to pay. The application of our 21st century sensitivities will rob them of valuable lessons about 19th century economic and social realities. Their historical perceptions will be sacrificed on the altar of academic expediency, all in the pursuit of commerce. The lesson they will learn from the teachers using this new edition will be clear. The best way to promote great literature is to change the impact of the author’s original words. Each new generation will have lost a revered example of the power and evolution of the English language. And an American treasure will have been stripped of its authenticity.

Any society willing to pay this price without a din of opposition would accept clothes on nude statues to encourage museum attendance. It would be in favor of sanitizing D.H. Lawrence and would tolerate the elimination of blasphemy from The Catcher in the Rye. So is resisting the change of a single word in just one American classic really important? You can bet your future it is!

Q.
Q.

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Comments 39 comments

lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 5 years ago from Alberta and Florida

I just heard an African-American comedian complain about this. He said (and I quote) "Slave is hardly an upgrade from n*****. Who's great idea was this?" It's a deplorable shame to change the classics. They are a true reflection of the times in which they were written and should be treasured for that fact. Why don't we just rewrite history? Oh, yeah. We already do. I'm in total agreement with you. Lynda


Dee aka Nonna profile image

Dee aka Nonna 5 years ago

I read your hub. Great, by the way! But I've sat here for 20 minutes or more trying to find the words. I do not disagree with anything you have to say. There was one thing that caused me to pause..you said " The word implied neither complement nor slur...everyone of African decent be they free, slave, or indentured" I would bet a dollar to a donut that they suffered and endured it's sting.

I read The Adventures of both Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn more than once. Mark Twain was a great and prolific writer. He could used words in a way that you could see the scenery he described. But even as a child I took these two pieces of work as the "adventures" of two very colorful characters who found a way to make life fun inspite of what was happening around them.

I am glad I don't have to make the decision on whether to update the word in the classic piece. But I do undertand why it would be necessary to make it easier for a teacher to continue to present the works of Twain.

As long as the orginal is always available I don't really see a problem with the reprint--teachers and kids are really in a "boat without a paddle" with the education system the way it is.

Thanks Quilligrapher for a great piece...much discussion should follow... and for allowing me some very careful thought about a wonderful piece of writing.


Quilligrapher profile image

Quilligrapher 5 years ago from New York Author

Thank you, Lynda. I totally agree with you as well. While we are struggling to decide if this solution is right or wrong, we must live with its effects, both good and bad. Q.


Quilligrapher profile image

Quilligrapher 5 years ago from New York Author

Thank you, Nonna, you are much too kind. To say words caused you to pause is to give them the highest level of praise.

I will gladly pay you the donut and concede to your point. As we both know, I am in no position to measure the sting. What they suffered and endured was much greater then I can imagine. But I wonder if the sting came less from the literal meaning and more from the feelings of hopelessness that it triggered.

Q.


Dee aka Nonna profile image

Dee aka Nonna 5 years ago

I think more from the latter. The first Africans brought over couldn't understand the language and then they had their language beaten out of them it was replaced by what they were allowed to learn and with a mixture of understanding, I think, by the way they felt when something was said and the tone used.

Again, Great hub...


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 5 years ago from Alberta and Florida

To Dee aka Nonna I think I do understand. Every time I hear women referred to as bitches and ho's (or worse) I smart.


jay 5 years ago

How about we let people see what life was like back then. It's a folly to worry about words so much. If you can't handle a word, move on the next word! Life is too short to worry about petty stuff like this.


Time4Travel profile image

Time4Travel 5 years ago from Canada

The classics should not be changed. They are classics for a reason-- to give us a window into another time. These novels help us understand what life was like. To alter the classics would be denying our past. Great article!


Quilligrapher profile image

Quilligrapher 5 years ago from New York Author

I tend to agree with you, T4T. Many other teachers also agree with you but not all. Earnest Hemingway had this to say, "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn."

Thanks for your comment.Q.


Sembj profile image

Sembj 5 years ago

Another very well written, thought provoking Hub. However, I disagree. There is a long tradition of bowderlizing many classics in the classroom including Shakespeare, Chaucer and a good deal more fine literature. Perhaps the most inane example of bowdlerization was the dictionary - of course all of the words young boys were most interested in were missing. However, if the price of putting dictionaries, Chaucer and Twain in the classroom is their bowdlerization, I'll accept it.

In an ideal world, there would be no need to "censor" Twain. In a better world, we would know that all teachers were good enough to explain all of the subtleties of non PC words and the students bright enough to understand them.

By the time kids are ready for university there is certainly no reason for any censorship. I used to be against censorship of any kind anywhere but have changed my mind and am willing to see any silly change if it gets the books into the classroom. Kids will probably buy an uncensored version if their interest is sparked.

As a kid, I gravitated towards any book that was not meant to be suitable for youngsters.

Again, a great hub, thanks.


Quilligrapher profile image

Quilligrapher 5 years ago from New York Author

Thank you, Sembj, for your views. I appreciate you comments and I welcome your opinions. Clearly, you view great literature differently than I. You are correct about bowdlerization. It has been around for a long time, as was slavery, and neither should be tolerated in a free society. If I am willing to accept censorship because I am not “in an ideal world” then I deserve to live in a less than ideal world. If schools tolerate teachers who are not “good enough to explain all of the subtleties of non PC words” then they will surely be graduating students not “bright enough to understand them.” I would gladly make silly changes to my words to get them into classrooms but I would never consider it my place to do the same to someone else’s words. Art, in all of its forms, should be imitated and appreciated but never altered to make it more acceptable. Thanks again for the read and for sharing your viewpoints.Q.


Sembj profile image

Sembj 5 years ago

Sadly we live in a world where I would consider many teachers poorly educated. Twain and other greats will only be allowed in classrooms if they are censored, given the politics and passion surrounding these issues. At one time I felt strongly that it was wrong to change classics and I thought that bowdlerized classics shouldn't be used; it was better not to teach a book if it meant changing it. I sometimes think that this is still the correct view since many classics require a degree of maturity that makes it more appropriate to read and study them in universities.

Romeo and Juliet is so often taught because the story and characters are readily understandable to adolescents whereas Anthony and Cleopatra, a story of two adult lovers rather than two young ones, is far less accessible because of many additional complexities in addition to the more remote love story and hence is not read in schools.

If it is agreed that a certain level of education is desirable in both teachers and students before teaching some classics, then the discussion becomes centered on the education system and how it is failing its students and the country.

I would completely support your views if I thought there was a strong movement that saw the education system as being flawed and were willing to make reforming our schools a major priority. Since the topic of whether creationism belongs as a scientific explanation or not seems to be a major concern of the public, I am not hopeful that sophisticated debates about education are going to brake out all over.

Children with educated parents will be at a far greater advantage in a culture that has a poor education system. I suggest a country that truly loves freedom should love education and make it a significant priority. Countries make calculated decisions about their education systems; as Russell says, they design them to produce what they think will be good future citizens; it is worrying that other countries have produced better education systems to better educate their citizens during a time when the US system has seen its students slip further and further behind those in other countries.


Quilligrapher profile image

Quilligrapher 5 years ago from New York Author

Well stated, Sembj. I always welcome new ideas and yours are among the keepers. Q.


cathylynn99 profile image

cathylynn99 5 years ago from northeastern US

agree with everything except your reduction of the number of reasons for changing something. how did you come up with your criteria? voted up.


cathylynn99 profile image

cathylynn99 5 years ago from northeastern US

that's exactly what i meant. tried to go to the hub you referenced in your answer. it's unpublished.


Quilligrapher profile image

Quilligrapher 5 years ago from New York Author

Thank you, CathyLynn, for the read and for your comments. Both are greatly appreciated.

I’m not sure I understand your question about my “reduction of the number of reasons for changing something.” Perhaps you refer to the three tests I suggest to determine if censorship is justified, i.e. liberty, justice, and necessity. It is a concept I developed during research and presented in a piece about Censorship in the USA. http://hubpages.com/politics/CENSORSHIPUSA

I fixed the flawed link. Please try again.

Once more, I am grateful for your comments. Q.


American View profile image

American View 5 years ago from Plano, Texas

Quill,

A great well written hub. Of course, I am late to the party again, but I did get here

I am one who is very strong on tradition. To change such a classic messes with tradition. I do not believe Mark Twain would appreciate someone changing his work. I was far from a good student back in the day(one needs to show up and not get in trouble in order to learn) but this is one book I read many times then and a few more times over the years.

I believe the Professor is wrong. He can change the book all he wants, the schools will still not add it back to their programs. Sadly, the world has changed on us Quill. That book is not violent enough for today standards. You will never see a Tom Sawyer Video game. Tradition means nothing anymore. All schools care about is trying to pass a skills test instead of teaching. Shame is, if they did their jobs and teach, the test would take care of itself. But since they concentrate on that, they sacrifice other things. Do you know there are no more shops in High Schools? Recently Texas went though major fights and wanted to change how history books show history. I went to School in NY. My kids went to school here in Texas. THey have such a different view of history due to what they were taught. I had several discussions on the inaccuracies of what they were teaching. There response was it was there choice on how they want to present how history was, it did not have to be quite acurate. ANd one wonders why our school scores are down. One taught one way, another taught another, and a test that asks a question that the answer is different than what the 2 were taught. So much for tradition or truth.

Great hub Quill Up and awesome


Quilligrapher profile image

Quilligrapher 5 years ago from New York Author

Hey, AV. I really appreciate your visit to this hub and your comment as well. While I understand how some things in the curriculums of our school years may not be considered quite as significant today, I firmly believe Politically Correct thinking has no place in fiction, particularly in our classics. History, on the other hand, consists of different perspectives, as well as raw facts, and it is the duty of our schools to teach all views. Thanks for sharing. Q.


mosaicman profile image

mosaicman 5 years ago from Tampa Bay, Fl

I think changing the original text is ludicrous! It takes away from the original intent of the author. I liken this idea to changing or taking out cursewords out of a classic novel (on a book from a Summer Reading List). These societal renegade words along with the "N" word were situationally placed in the stories for a reason. They were meant to strike up a chord within you.

Check out some of my hubs if you get a chance. Let me know what you think.


Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 4 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

Hi Q - I agree with you that republishing the novels thus bowdlerised is a travesty. What _might be acceptable would ba a book for younger children along the lines of 'Tales from Huck Finn', rather like Charles Lamb's 'Tales from Shakespeare'. This makes no pretence at being a version of the book, but does serve to raise awareness that the original is there, and there to be read.


Quilligrapher profile image

Quilligrapher 4 years ago from New York Author

Para, your suggestion makes sense, naturally. Dr. Gribben had the credentials to get away that approach if he wished to. However, Twain wrote Huck Finn as a word portrait of HIS time and I believe he did not intend it to be filtered by the sensitivities of another era. Be well and thanks for the visit.

Q.


Quilligrapher profile image

Quilligrapher 4 years ago from New York Author

@mosaicman

How true, how true. I really appreciate your adding to the conversation. Thank you.


Captain Redbeard profile image

Captain Redbeard 4 years ago from Ohio

Great hub. I wonder though, is censorship of our history the right thing to do? I recently bought my children a collection of Loony Tunes in gold and silver editions. There are cartoons in there that have scenes blurred because Bugs has on black face. I guess I don't understand why we can't learn about these things and who exactly is really getting upset about it? It's 2011, we have a President of African Descent here in the states and black men and women are able to do whatever it is they choose regardless of how some people view them.

I for one am Irish and hear slurs all the time about me being dumb and a drunk. Do I care, no, people will always have something to say. Better to just move along then to sit and scream about how hurt our feelings are.

Sorry if I offended anyone, It wasn't my intention.


Quilligrapher profile image

Quilligrapher 4 years ago from New York Author

Thanks for your input, Capt.Red. I, too, see no justification for censoring history no matter who might be offended by the truth. However, I put censorship of cartoons that reinforce false steriotypes in another category. Insults designed to get a laugh can be hurtful and the end never justifies the means.

I hope your novel is close to completion, Capt. Keep up your efforts.

Q.


Captain Redbeard profile image

Captain Redbeard 4 years ago from Ohio

Thank you so much for remembering Q! I take it to heart that you care and am sad to say I am having trouble with the 2nd draft that I received back from my editor. Some of the re writes that were suggested are proving to be difficult. I don't know that I have the skill to change the view point of the first third of the story. :/


Quilligrapher profile image

Quilligrapher 4 years ago from New York Author

Hey Capt.,

I've seen enough of your work to know you have the skill. I'm sure you can break the steps down into smaller manageable tasks and you can reserve a block of time each day to work on it. Good Luck and keep up the faith in yourself.

Q.


Captain Redbeard profile image

Captain Redbeard 4 years ago from Ohio

Thank you for your words of encouragment sir.


Ralph Deeds profile image

Ralph Deeds 4 years ago

Well reasoned commentary on the book that my college American literature professor, Henry Alonzo Myers, called the greatest American novel ("Moby Dick" was second.) As I recall, Hemingway said something to the effect that all American literature comes from "Huckleberry Finn." High school students deserve to be assigned to read the unedited edition of this great novel.


Quilligrapher profile image

Quilligrapher 4 years ago from New York Author

Thank you for your visit and comment, Ralph. Both are greatly appreciated. Your contribution means a lot to me.

Q.


wtaylorjr2001 profile image

wtaylorjr2001 3 years ago from Binghamton NY

I remember reading these works of art. I was uncomfortable. I didn't want to finish it. Now that I look back at it I see that it is indeed art that reflects the society that we live in. It is my opinion that literary history must include the original version of Mr Twain's genius. At the same time art should reflect the society that we live in so modernized versions should be implemented with the understanding that they are based on the original work. These stories are excellent foundations for future writers and content creators. It is not acceptable for students to feel so uncomfortable that they don't complete the work and fake it. If re-imaging the work inspires one student to create something unique I believe that it's worth it.


Quilligrapher profile image

Quilligrapher 3 years ago from New York Author

Thank you, wtaylorjr, for your insight filled comment. I am happy to read that you share some of my concerns about distorting Twain's original work. Welcome to Hubpages. I think you will do well here.


Ralph Deeds profile image

Ralph Deeds 3 years ago

I grew up in Lousiana when use of the N word was common, and despite reading "Huck Finn" and "Tom Sawyer," my parents were able to teach me never to use it. Great hub, Quill!


marwan asmar profile image

marwan asmar 3 years ago from Amman, Jordan

Very well written hub. Thanks. We can't drop the "N" just to promote political correctness. Society was like that back then and nobody can deny that, it reflects what existed. It is now up to teachers to point out there has been a literary evolution, but to keep the text as it is. Twain and Huck are part of great world literature because they are reflective of different times. Don't spoil by trying to modernize.


Quilligrapher profile image

Quilligrapher 3 years ago from New York Author

Thank you Mr. Asmar. I have a high regard for your opinions and I am honored to have you comment on this hub.

Q.


marwan asmar profile image

marwan asmar 3 years ago from Amman, Jordan

Thank you for your response. I really did like the above piece especially, the way you posed the arguments together. I do hope we keep meeting on Hubpages, cheers.


Jodah profile image

Jodah 2 years ago from Queensland Australia

Great hub Q. I don't believe it should be allowed to change the wording of classic novels where the author is no longer around to give permission, just because of political correctness or because certain words are now seen in a different context to when they were written. The novels should be treated as having historical value in the language of the times.

In Australia the word "abo" and even "aborigine" is now seen in a similar light to "nigger". It is now seen as correct to use the word "Aboriginal" only when talking about our indigenous people, though they freely refer to themselves as "black fellas".

You mention "Catcher in the Rye" so you may be interested in reading this hub by Rachael O'Halloran. There is mention of that book being re released with a different cover under a different author's name...pure copyright theft in my book, but apparently lawfully allowed.

http://hubpages.com/education/Interactive-You-Are-...

Voted up. I am a Mark Twain fan.


Ralph Deeds profile image

Ralph Deeds 2 years ago

My college American Lit professor said "Huckleberry Finn" is the greatest American novel. As I recall, "Moby Dick" was second. Hemingway said all novels come from Huck Finn or words to that effect.


Quilligrapher profile image

Quilligrapher 2 years ago from New York Author

@Ralph Deeds, You are absolutely correct. Huckleberry Finn is the model from which all other American novels were crafted. The words expunged are critical literary components that separated Twain's time from ours. Remove the words and the timeline becomes blurred.

Thank you, Ralph, for stopping by and leaving a comment. As usual, you have a lot to contribute. Q.


Quilligrapher profile image

Quilligrapher 2 years ago from New York Author

Thank you @Jodah for contributing to this topic. Your input is a valuable addition. Thanks also for the link to Ms. O'Halloran's hub. I will visit it shortly. I hope you will keep in touch. Q.

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