Today I woke up to the disturbing idea that a censored version of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn will be published by Alabama-based publisher NewSouth Books. How do they plan to censor the book? By replacing the era-appropriate word nigger, which appears 219 times, with the word slave.
As a writer and reader, I am horrified by this decision. Personally, I would not use the n-word in speech or written form, but Mark Twain wrote at a very different time. While the word was considered rude during his writing career, the term has not been static. It has evolved to a level of greater offense today.
The publisher claims this new form of the book will make it more accessible to squeamish parents and the schools who fear them. There is a lot to learn from both Mark Twain’s use of the word and from the cringe factor that it induces today. From a pedagogical perspective, I see reading the original Mark Twain version as catalyst for controversial discussion and a vehicle for critical thinking. I don’t see how either of these things would be bad for high schoolers, nor do I see how a whitewashed version would help foster a honest dialogue about the time period in which Mark Twain wrote and its relationship to the times we live in now.
When I read Huck Finn, I don’t remember being offended or put off by his use of the n-word. I can think of other classic books that are clearly products of their time but could be considered sexist by today’s standards. I grew up loving (and still love) the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, despite the fact she referenced “women’s work” several times. Victorian-era novella Flatland is also quite sexist, but in this case, I couldn’t get past his treatment of two-dimensional “women” and gave up trying to read the book.
In any case, here’s a great post on the Atlantic about this censored version of Huck Finn. Jamelle Bouie makes a great argument for not “purging the ugliness” out of history and literature.