The “n-word” and Huck Finn

So there’s a new edition coming out of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (coupled with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer) where the “n-word” is systematically replaced by “slave”. (See the article here.) The main idea of the editor Alan Gribben is that people aren’t reading one of the greatest works of American literature merely because the work has frequent use of a word that now carries a tremendous emotional charge it didn’t carry back in Twain’s day. So, he says, take out the offending word, and encourage people to read the great work. (Note, of course, the obvious point that this is only a single edition of the work, and there will be plenty, yes, plenty of tamper-proof editions of the original work available for the rest of time.)

I say good for Gribben and NewSouth books. They are of course at the receiving end of a withering blast of scorn from textual purists who think the replacement constitutes censorship or some deep violation of a virginal text. Hogwash. Indeed, an argument can be made that retaining the “n-word” violates Twain’s text, since the word itself has changed in meaning over time. Certainly Twain never meant eyebrows to be raised every time the word made an appearance, and so retaining it fundamentally alters the good humor of the text. But the main point is this: if such a replacement allows Mark Twain to enter the public schools of America, then so be it!

And, yes, I could even go for renaming Melville’s work Moby Richard if it meant people would actually read the thing.

Author: Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.

17 thoughts on “The “n-word” and Huck Finn

  1. This came up recently on Facebook, since I don’t have much time I’ll post this video and my longest comment from the discussion.

    Kierkegaard wrote about the common practice in christianity of describing the Abraham Isaac story as a “sacrifice”, which is scripturally (?) accurate, in that it is the language there, but his point was that in practice of teaching, it was… dumbed down to sacrifice, like sacrificing anything, rather than calling it what it was. It was murder, but the church was mainstreaming itself, which Kierkegaard opposed (he would sit at the cigar shops on sundays and smoke as people came out of church). His view was, they were sterilizing the message of their faith and denying its reality, denying its discomfort, denying its meaning and the gravity that came with it.

    Slayer wrote a song called Angel of Death about the nazi doctor that experimented on jews for the same reason. People were hiding from reality, and they needed to punched in the face. Liberals need it plenty, not just as a “shock”, as if the novelty of it is the point. Its a tool of growth. You cannot gain power or wisdom or learn by hiding. That is why I think this revision is wrong, its catering to the people that want to hide.

    Slavery in the Americas during the 19th century wasn’t just Slavery, as it had been known for the rest of human history. It was a complete and profound devaluing of human beings into mere means to an end, into industrial tools, and the word is part of that. It was their identity to be a lesser thing identified with that term. It isn’t enough to say slavery wasn’t very nice, to understand the time, to BE THERE, as Twain wants us to be, we have to see it in its entirety, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us. Blacks enslaved each other long before white people did, and we enslaved each other, but things changed terribly during that period. They were no longer merely servants, they were less than human.

    Richard Pryor did a stand up routine shortly after his accident with drugs (fire) about going to africa that talked about this, which was very touching. I’ll look for it. He pushed for the use of the word today to stop, because both in its modern casual use, and in overbearing censorship from literature, we have forgotten its meaning and its origin and its place.


    1. I simply don’t understand rewriting Mark Twain. One of your commenters noted that with or without the “N-word” the book condemned slavery. Your commentor is exactly right. Yet, I think the impact of the book is somewhat lessened. It is the fact that young Huck Finn thinks nothing of using the word… It is this contrast that is critical to the books point.

      Right now I think Americans get too much garbage that is sanitized. The news is sanitized. Our food is sanitized and process almost so much that there are no nutrients left in it. Now, there’s an attempt to sanitize our literature – stop it. Read the original. Enjoy all of the nuance that Mark Twain put in this wonderful American classic.

      I saw a Richard Pryor, Live on Sunset Strip when it opened in the theaters in the early 1980s. There is nothing like it. It is truly one of the greatest performances that I’ve ever seen by comedian. He was funny, thoughtful, sad and even tragic at times. The movie was thoroughly entertaining. I highly recommend it.

      Thanks for your thoughtful post.


    2. To put a fine point on your comment: Taking out the word makes it easier for people raised in the south to white wash the antebellum period. Already people are happy to say that the civil war was about taxes, as was claimed by some of the more marginal racists at the time. Remember when this book was written, 1880s, long enough past Tom Sawyer that Twain knew what he was doing and wanted to prevent this type of white-washing.

      I grew up in the south. I read the book 3 times before I caught the full critique (the first two times were as a kid) and the third time changed my life. Clemons has creditability because of how realistic his prose is. To change that would be like editing the dialect he uses, like reading a translation of the book. I find it hard to believe that any good school would use an English-English translation of a classic text.


      1. I certainly have not given Hobbes and Bacon their full attention because of the nature of their prose. The words wash over me when I read like I am drowning. However, I think it would be blasphemy to say that “10 things I hate about you” is better than “Taming of the Shrew,” so there is a meaningful inconsistency there. I felt about Bill once the same way I feel about Tom and Fran.


  2. Will, I agree with you that we should not sanitize history. I just don’t think replacing the ‘n-word’ is sanitizing history. Huck Finn is every bit a condemnation of slavery without the word as it is with it. And if losing the word allows it into public school curricula, I think it’s an easy decision.


    1. I think I am with you, Huenemann. My only hesitation: It is not as if children never hear the word. They probably hear it with some frequency, depending on the kind of music they listen to. We would serve these children well by having a frank discussion about the word in a classroom around a great book, instead of allowing the much more immature cultural programming (music, peers, etc) to determine how kids think about the word.

      But, for a number of reasons both good and bad, we just are not willing to have that frank conversation in our schools (and probably not in our homes either). If we can’t convince schools that taking up sensitive subjects like the n-word is part of the task of education, then I resign myself to your position. Better to have kids read a sanitized Huck Finn than to not read it at all.

      Thinking of this word that we talk about and yet cannot say always makes me think of this sketch. Though they are protecting sacred rather than profane words, in both cases they are words of great power that are used to oppress, words that bring pain and horror to those who hear them (Ni and It, though Ekke Ekke Ekke Ekke Ptang Zoo Boing Zow Zing fails to have the same effect). There is no apparent reason why one sound over an other should have such power, and those most concerned with the use of these ‘words of power’ end up bedeviling themselves:


      1. Here’s what I’ll bet:

        20 years from now, no one will care because the n-word is a common enough slang term that it will continue to undergo massive change in meaning. Since the prescriptionists won’t say it, there’s nobody motivated to “preserve it’s true meaning” or whatever they do. Some kids already use it as a synonym for “gangsta,” as in one who lives the life glorified in Golden Age Hip-Hop.

        Let us have this new edition, then, and in 20 years we can use the old one again because it will be a funny little word nobody cares about.


      2. I hate the language dance sometimes. Language DOES matter, and we all have misused it as we constantly try to master it. This is made more difficult as it shifts under our feet, over time. As meaning changes over time, it is ever more important to understand how it was originally meant in a period, to be properly interpreted in it’s original context. And it becomes ever more critical to teach successive generations about how it has been used in the past, so they can properly understand history.

        Twain did not misuse the word, in this case. He named it, intentionally. Twain used it to show how disgustingly it was used, and how Huck Finn comes to realize this. If we let these things slide over time, by renaming them, we lose their original context, and context always matters. Twain meant for us to be disgusted by it’s use in his time. A fictional story or not, it was used to illustrate it’s common usage in his period. He meant to show that it was just a ridiculous label that hindered people of his time from being able to judge the individual – that it was just an arbitrary label used as a boundary for the lowest form of collectivism and judgment based on race.

        “Racism is the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism. It is the notion of ascribing moral, social or political significance to a man’s genetic lineage—the notion that a man’s intellectual and characterological traits are produced and transmitted by his internal body chemistry. Which means, in practice, that a man is to be judged, not by his own character and actions, but by the characters and actions of a collective of ancestors.

        Racism claims that the content of a man’s mind (not his cognitive apparatus, but its content) is inherited; that a man’s convictions, values and character are determined before he is born, by physical factors beyond his control. This is the caveman’s version of the doctrine of innate ideas—or of inherited knowledge—which has been thoroughly refuted by philosophy and science. Racism is a doctrine of, by and for brutes. It is a barnyard or stock-farm version of collectivism, appropriate to a mentality that differentiates between various breeds of animals, but not between animals and men.” – Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness

        Huck Finn’s usage was intentional by Twain and it should always be preserved in it’s original context if we want to remember the lessons Twain intended. Twain wanted us to be educated about the word and it’s problems in usage at that time. Let’s not be shy about that.


  3. I like Siler’s take on it. I want to think this will be a funny little historical footnote for historians of the text. No version edited this way will persist, but if people won’t read it without the softening, then let them have their watered down reality.

    It is not like this is the best evidence for failure in the current educational system. There are plenty of other examples which are more powerful. Consider the claim among 20% of people in this country that our president’s religion is ambiguous.

    I am not even sure that anyone currently involved in education has a model detailed enough to judge this question.

    For laughs, you should read the Pippi Longstocking texts prior to editing (as they are in German; which reminds me, we also dramatically censor the fairy tales – something which annoys me). Maybe this censoring explain the popularity of movies like the Saw series. Something that would have been impossible in the world where wakes were in the home and bodies were prepared by family members.

    Heaven forbid that students encounter something written in a different time. Think about James Fenimore Cooper, for example. That stuff is full of racist rhetoric about race mixing. It is still a good story. Should we edit for people, or should we take an opportunity for people to understand that what is acceptable changes over time?

    Unfortunately this depends on who the student will turn out to be. If the student is meant to grow up thinking that our president is Muslim… then by all means censor what they read. To me this means that we don’t expect them to have the capacity to make the adjustments on their own.


  4. Good comments, all. Look, I certainly wouldn’t give my own kids the revised version, and I do think the need for a revised version is ridiculous. (I am the father who recently taught his children how to swear properly.) But that doesn’t mean the need is unreal. Plainly, public education is under a perpetual siege by idiots, and they will not be going away any time soon. Given that condition — okay, let’s have a revision of Twain, and let’s do whatever we can to sneak substantive and radical ideas past those idiots. Oh happy day, when Siler’s view is proven correct, and we laugh over the n-word! Unfortunately, on that day we will also be revising “Little Red Riding Hood” to “Little Red Riding Baseball Cap” or some other such nonsense.


      1. Maybe it’s because I’ve only ever seen them at stiff social events, and they might be shy, but they just seem so impeccably mild- and well-mannered.


      2. Their cuteness is only a ploy; they sucker you in and next thing you know you’re duct-taped to a flagpole.


    1. Brilliant! But I still am not moved. Though the “senior black correspondent” is perhaps right that it distorts Twain’s intent, etc., he just isn’t facing the reality of the situation. Education works in piecemeal steps, opening doors a little bit at a time. His suggestion of pimping the cover of the original is brilliant, though. “Li’l Twain”! Or even better: “2-2 Twain”!


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