The question of whether Mark Twain's classic Huckleberry Finn should be censored first came up a year after it was published, and the pressure on the often politically incorrect (then and now) book hasn't stopped in the 125 years since, earning it fourth place on a list of the US's most banned books.
Now a Twain scholar from Auburn University in Alabama believes he has found a way to teach Huck Finn without all the controversy about race and language: Alan Gribben is editing a new version of the classic novel that will remove all 219 instances of the "n-word," replacing it with the word "slave." The book will also replace the word "Injun."
Literary purists and opponents of censorship are crying foul, accusing Gribben of Bowdlerizing a literary classic. But supporters of the project say it's a way to ensure that Twain's classic continues to be taught in schools despite objections about its use of politically incorrect language.
"I'm hoping that people will welcome this new option, but I suspect that textual purists will be horrified," Gribben admitted in an interview with Publishers Weekly. "Already, one professor told me that he is very disappointed that I was involved in this."
But Gribben says he believes in the project because he believes it will make the book more accessible to a 21st-century audience -- one that he fears will otherwise forget the novel altogether.
"This is not an effort to render Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn colorblind," he said. "Race matters in these books. It's a matter of how you express that in the 21st century."
Gibben said his experience taught him many students hate reading Huck Finn because of the language. "My daughter went to a magnet school and one of her best friends was an African-American girl. She loathed the book, could barely read it."
Many critics disagree that the solution to Huck Finn's controversies is to remove offensive language. In a blog posting, legal scholar Jonathan Turley argues that blindly replacing the n-word with "slave" could change the meaning of many passages.
Replacing this word with “slave” can change the meaning and certainly the intent of Twain. Consider the following line:
“Oh, yes, this is a wonderful govment, wonderful. Why, looky here. There was a free
niggerslave there from Ohio – a mulatter, most as white as a white man. He had the whitest shirt on you ever see…"
The difference may be subtle but Twain clearly could have used slave. The word existed at the time. Twain chose the n-word to convey something beyond captive status. It was a word used widely. It is still used in literary works to say something about the people who use it.
Turley notes that many American literary classics contain the n-word, including William Faulkner's Go Down, Moses. (Harper Lee's widely-taught To Kill A Mockingbird also contains the word, though not nearly to the extent of Huck Finn.)
"In my book, changing loaded, powerful words in a literary classic to better 'express it in the 21st century' is no better than George Lucas 'updating' the original Star Wars films to some bastardized, unrecognizable iteration of itself," Michael Whitney writes at FireDogLake. "You ruin the original intent of the book and force new readers to run from the reality in which the book was written and the historical context that followed."
But Keith Staskiewicz at Entertainment Weekly uses a similar metaphor to make the opposite point.
"It’s unfortunate," he says of the decision to edit Huck Finn, "but is it really any more catastrophic than a TBS-friendly re-edit of The Godfather...? The original product is changed for the benefit of those who, for one reason or another, are not mature enough to handle it, but as long as it doesn’t affect the original, is there a problem?"
The new Huck Finn will appear as part of a volume that also includes The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and will be published by NewSouth Books.
"At NewSouth, we saw the value in an edition that would help the works find new readers," the publisher said in a statement. "If the publication sparks good debate about how language impacts learning or about the nature of censorship or the way in which racial slurs exercise their baneful influence, then our mission in publishing this new edition of Twain’s works will be more emphatically fulfilled."