Is "Huck Finn" Without the N-Word Still "Huck Finn"?

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 5 2011 9:02 AM

Is "Huck Finn" Without the N-Word Still "Huck Finn"?

Publishers Weekly
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 that a new edition of

/blogs/browbeat/2011/01/05/is_huck_finn_without_the_n_word_still_huck_finn/jcr:content/body/slate_image

will swap out the word

nigger

which appears 219 times in the novel

in favor of the less-combustible

slave

. (

Injun

is also getting scrubbed.) The move isn't really all that surprising:

Huck Finn

was the

, according to the American Library Association. But if

is anything to go by, the choice isn't popular; most responders seem to think the bowdlerization is a bad, or at least laughable, idea:

NotSoSexyTruth  

Publishers censoring the "N" word from Huckleberry Finn isn't going to stop Mel Gibson from reading it out loud in public.

deadwhiteguys  

When the publisher of the censored Huckleberry Finn dies, I hope he meets Mark Twain who will certainly throttle him with a whiskey bottle.

OfficialFYRARE  

Huckleberry Finn has the "N word" removed from the book,next slavery will be re-explained in history books as an all expense paid vacation

BettyFckinWhite  

Huckleberry Finn is eliminating the "N" word from new editions to be less offensive. Also, Moby Dick will now be called Moby Penis.

thatdrew  

Huckleberry Finn gets edited, and Snooki writes a novel. Books are now officially dead. 

... and so on and so forth. (As a side note, you can read more about Snooki's novel here .)

Toni Morrison wrote about the n-word in her introduction to the 1996 Oxford edition of Huck Finn  (PDF). She describes how, as a young reader, she found the novel disturbing and alarming. Then she read it again in the '80s, provoked by efforts to remove the novel from libraries and public school reading lists:

These efforts were based, it seemed to me, on a narrow notion of how to handle the offense Mark Twain's use of the term "nigger" would occasion for black students and the corrosive effect it would have on white ones. It struck me as a purist yet elementary kind of censorship designed to appease adults rather than educate children. Amputate the problem, band-aid the solution. A serious comprehensive discussion of the term by an intelligent teacher certainly would have benefited my eighth-grade class and would have spared all of us (a few blacks, many whites mostly second-generation immigrant children) some grief. Name calling is a plague of childhood and a learned activity ripe for discussion as soon as it surfaces. Embarrassing as it had been to hear the dread word spoken, and therefore sanctioned, in my class, my experience of Jim's epithet had little to do with my initial nervousness the book had caused.

I'm definitely nodding along with Morrison here. But as a one-time teacher, I also realize that classrooms and the school systems they're embedded in aren't always idealized teaching spaces: One too-graphic sex scene in an otherwise age-appropriate book, and an administrator may decide to nix it. Or a teacher may swap it for a book that's less likely to get them angry phone calls from parents. The Twain scholar responsible for the new edition, Dr. Alan Gribben, describes how a number of teachers approached him during a lecture tour of Alabama, saying that they would love to teach both Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn , but felt they couldn't: "In the new classroom, it's really not acceptable."

In an article  in this morning's New York Times , Gribben says, "I just had the idea to get us away from obsessing about this one word, and just let the stories stand alone." (The introduction to the edition discusses the editorial decision, so the change isn't invisible which would be a big problem.) The Times piece does raise the interesting question of what the age cut-off for this edition might be. Gribben says he intends the book for younger people and general readers, though he also writes in the introduction that "even at the level of college and graduate school, students are capable of resenting textual encounters with this racial appellative." I think the edition would be a silly choice for college or grad students, or for that matter "general readers" regardless of age. (If you're picking up Huck Finn on your own, you're probably ready to deal with it.)

But high schools are a different beast, are they not ? Huckleberry Finn is a great work of fiction, and it's a lot bigger than one radioactive word. As Morrison notes, it's about estrangement and death; it's about how individuals engage with a racist society and a chaotic world; it's about sorrow and the sublime. If taking out the n-word means more students can be exposed to it, well, I'm not convinced that that's a horrible thing.

Nina Shen Rastogi is a writer and editor, and is also the vice president for content at Figment.

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