It is Now Safe to Read Huck Finn

by Jason Peters on January 5, 2011 · 9 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Short

Just be sure you procure the improved version.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Keastvold January 5, 2011 at 7:07 pm

The mere existence of such a revision actually doesn’t bother me. It seems clear from the linked article that the editor respects the original text, thinks people ought to read the original text, and has made the revisions only in an attempt to render the text accessible to the many students who otherwise would never be assigned the book (or even allowed to check it out from a school library, in some cases). One might say that the way to go about this is to fight the banning of “politically incorrect” books, rather than capitulating to the shrill demands of those who would sanitize works of literature according to modern sensibilities and thus rob them of their impact, but this fight has been going on for decades. I think it’s certainly legitimate to take a different tack in the meantime.

However, it’s a mystery to me why a Twain scholar, presumably well-versed in the culture and history of the time during which Twain was writing, would replace every instance of “n—” with “slave.” Obviously “slave” denotes legal and economic status, not skin color. “N—” has always been used (and continued to be used, long after the abolition of slavery) to refer to all people with dark skin and African heritage, whether slave or free. The article points out one instance in which “slave” obviously makes no sense, as the character is referring to a freedman; I haven’t read Huck Finn in a while, but I’m sure there are many others. Maybe a better approach would be to replace “n—” (when it refers to a person’s race rather than captive status) with another slightly less offensive but still derogatory or out-moded term (“colored man,” “darkie,” or “negro,” perhaps); the book then might pass litmus tests imposed by school boards but still give students a sense of the white characters’ attitudes toward black people, both slave and free. Just my two cents…


avatar Oldhickory68 January 6, 2011 at 11:59 am

I’m reading through the book with seventh graders at a Christian school in Texas presently. We’ve had excellent discussions about the word. They understand Twain’s use of it as part of his broader social commentary of his time. It’s there, they’re going to hear it eventually and I felt it was necessary to teach them about the “full context” of the word as it appeared in the late 1800s. Its a tragic and unfortunate part of our nation’s history – much like a relative no one likes to talk about. The students have been remarkably mature about it.

avatar Rob G January 6, 2011 at 1:43 pm

Coming soon to a school near you: Joseph Conrad’s ‘The Black Fellow of the Narcissus’ and Flannery O’Connor’s ‘The Artificial Colored Guy.”

avatar D.W. Sabin January 6, 2011 at 4:57 pm

May the Editor of this sanitized version end up in Hell next to Mr. Clemens. To be charitable, he is doing it with all the best intentions of this stupid age and so perhaps cannot be fully blamed for such foolishness. After all, he will not be consigned to one of the more desperate rings of hell if he is allowed a place beside Samuel C. No, Samuel Clemens is ensconced with the more benevolent sinners such as rum runners , semi-honest politicians, secret tipplers of the Anti-Saloon League, literary anarchists and , one would hope, H.L. from Bawlmore. This , to be sure, would be too good a company for such a literary apostate as this self-annointed buffer of Twain.

Let us only say nice things for nice people and have a rilly rilly nice country. The word “Bonehead” was developed for just such circumstances.

avatar Samuel January 6, 2011 at 5:58 pm

This is infuriating. The arguments of “accessibility” seem to fall apart on both sides on the very grounds that what one is accessing is not the work of Mark Twain. Yes, it is a small thing, in that it is one word substituting for one other, but Twain wasn’t some simple, socially uncritical storyteller; when he used the “N-” word, he understood all of the weight it carried. It doesn’t matter one’s feelings on Twain — this sort of thoughtless sterilization attests to the utter lack of nuance and subtlety behind what we call censorship and political correctness. There are good examples of censorship, but this is simply not one of them. Young people should engage with Huck Finn, or they shouldn’t, but if they do, let them read his story and not some lame age’s timid and pathetic and neutered retelling of it.

avatar John B January 6, 2011 at 7:38 pm

I think it would be interesting to consider Mr. Peters’s post in light of Mr. Deneen’s recent one, Art and Community. What makes this revision of Huck Finn blameworthy, when the removal of the piece of which Mr. Deneen spoke was considered praiseworthy? Rather than seeing a contradiction between the two posts, I think we might find good reasons to hold both views, and I would be curious if they would like to elaborate.

avatar Patrick J. Deneen January 6, 2011 at 9:54 pm

John B.,
I think the appropriate analogy would be if the Smithsonian – in response to objections from Catholics over the portrayal of the crucifix covered with ants – had decided to replace that image with a crucifix displayed in the Vatican. I’m sure many people would be just as upset as they were when the image was removed, but it’s hardly the same thing. In such a case the authorities would have altered the work of the artist – and thus would its defenders be rightly outraged. The same goes in the case of Twain’s work in this instance. It’s one thing to decide whether the art will be patronized by the community (if can’t abide the n-word – in spite of its widespread usage in the 19th century when Twain was writing – don’t read Twain; for that matter, don’t listen to hip-hop); it’s another to alter the artwork altogether.

avatar Patrick J. Deneen January 7, 2011 at 2:57 pm
avatar John B January 9, 2011 at 5:59 pm

So we maintain the value of authenticity while at the same time noting that authenticity is not the sole value in art? I like it. Thank you for your response to my question.

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