Mark Twain gets a P.C. makeover

Is "Huckleberry Finn" too racist to read?

Publisher’s Weekly reports a  Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is being updated for today’s students by removing all references to a potentially troublesome word: nigger.

Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a classic by most any measure—T.S. Eliot called it a masterpiece, and Ernest Hemingway pronounced it the source of “all modern American literature.” 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.”

Twain himself defined a “classic” as “a book which people praise and don’t read.” Rather than see Twain’s most important work succumb to that fate, Twain scholar Alan Gribben and NewSouth Books plan to release a version of Huckleberry Finn, in a single volume with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, that does away with the “n” word (as well as the “in” word, “Injun”) by replacing it with the word “slave.”

“This is not an effort to render Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn colorblind,” said Gribben, speaking from his office at Auburn University at Montgomery, where he’s spent most of the past 20 years heading the English department. “Race matters in these books. It’s a matter of how you express that in the 21st century.”

The idea of a more politically correct Finn came to the 69-year-old English professor over years of teaching and outreach, during which he habitually replaced the word with “slave” when reading aloud. Gribben grew up without ever hearing the “n” word (“My mother said it’s only useful to identify [those who use it as] the wrong kind of people”) and became increasingly aware of its jarring effect as he moved South and started a family. “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.”

Why is it whenever adults want to engage in politically correctness they grab a kid and use them as a shield. “Hey, I’m just thinking about the kids.” How about thinking about their ability to reason and be exposed to and attempt to understand difficult concepts for a change?

Kids are cruel and “nigger” is a cruel word, but you have to one particularly delicate hothouse flower to be a contemporary American child and never heard, read, or been exposed to that word.  Huckleberry Finn uses the epithet of “nigger” no less than 214 times.   Wow.  Twain must have been some kind of hardcore bigot, huh?

Here’s what Twain had to say about that: “I am quite sure that I have no race prejudices, and I think I have no colour prejudices nor creed prejudices, indeed I know it. I can stand any society. All that I care to know is that a man is a human being – that is enough for me. He can’t be any worse.”

I take Twain at his word. He was trying to be better than his time and circumstances. I totally get why someone might take offense at the edgy words, but Twain used “nigger” in a historical content, not as a racial pejorative. Twain was not a bigot.

It’s one thing to change antiquated language to a more contemporary form in order to make it more accessible, but this is tampering with an author’s original work.  Twain was a very intelligent man. He could have used “Negro” or “colored” instead of “nigger” but he chose not to.  “Nigger” has a much more potent sting to it, but perhaps that was Twain’s intent.

At any point, if this is a case where someone doesn’t want to be offended, read another book and problem’s solved. But I read books by James Baldwin and Richard Wright, and they didn’t shy away from using the N-word where they thought it appropriate.

I think it’s sad that someone charged with the responsibility of  would support the altering and bastardization of an American classic due to the misguided fears that someone might be offended by the usage of an objectionable word.

Old Dead White Guy gets one right.

It starts with words and it evolves into concepts. There was a lot of righteous wrath on the Left when the Texas Board of Education started selectively rewriting history books. What makes it so much more acceptable to start altering a book because it contains a word that might upset a few sensitive souls?

Let’s change any book that uses the word, “faggot.” It hurts the feelings of homosexuals.

Let’s change any book where someone is called a “bitch.” It demeans women.

Let’s change any book that describes a character as “fat.” It makes people who are carrying too much weight feel singled out.

In fact, let’s just scrub any book that offends anyone. We can start with the Bible and go from there.

Gribben dismisses criticism that Twain’s work should be read as he wrote it as “textual purists.” What a snobbish, elitist attitude! Because he has a personal anecdote about his daughter having a friend who was offended by Huckleberry Finn that’s a reason to start striking out offending words?

Sorry, but it’s not. The right to take offense does not mean carry with it the provision everything be sanitized so no one is offended.

Huckleberry Finn should be treated like any other book or topic with controversial content. The student should be allowed to “opt out” and read something else instead. My daughter brings home these kinds of papers all the time advising parents material is being covered that might ruffle a few feathers.

Students should be challenged and at times confronted by material that is demanding, difficult, tough and troubling. They don’t need to be protected and sheltered. Let them read about Huck Finn and Jim exactly how Twain wrote it and decide for themselves if this is a “master and slave” relationship.

Any professor worth the title should appreciate the value of encouraging critical thinking in young minds but obviously Gribben doesn’t share that belief. That he would shred and ruin a substantial literary work to soothe his own delicate sensibilities is disgusting. That others would sign off on an ham-fisted attempt at back door censorship is disappointing.

Leave Twain alone.  Instead of shying away from indelicate words and troublesome topics, it’s healthier and a lot smarter to talk about the meanings of Twain’s message.   Scrubbing what appears to be dirty stifles reasoning and comprehension instead of stimulating it.

Classic works should not be tampered with by revisionist goody-goodies and p.c. busy bodies.

One thought on “Mark Twain gets a P.C. makeover

  1. I agree that it doe illustrate the book very well, but I don’t know if it is the best there is for New Histoicism. It could work we would just need pics from his life or society that show that these same ideals and actions took place in Twain’s world\society.


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