Quick announcement: Hey, guess who’s going to be Guest of Honor at Constellation in Nebraska this April!
Publishers Weekly recently reported on NewSouth, a small publisher which will be releasing a new edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in which all uses of the word “nigger” and “injun” have been changed. It’s not the first time this sort of thing has happened. John Wallace released a similarly “cleansed” edition of Huck Finn two decades ago.
There’s a lot to unpack here. Twain scholar Dr. Alan Gribben, who edited the NewSouth edition, lays out his rationale in the introduction (available online):
Far more controversial than this reuniting of Twain’s boy books will be the editor’s decision to eliminate two racial slurs that have increasingly formed a barrier to these works for teachers, students, and general readers. The editor thus hopes to introduce both books to a wider readership than they can currently enjoy.
In other words, he was worried because the books were already being banned from schools and elsewhere. His primary goal isn’t necessarily to censor the book, but to circumvent banning by removing the primary point of contention. He goes on to talk about his personal experiences reading the book, and the pain caused by the repeated and casual use of the word “nigger.” (Side note: I’ve seen zero discussion of the word “injun” in this context, which bothers me.)
I sympathize with Gribben’s intentions. And I think the discussion as to whether or not these stories are appropriate for the classroom is a good debate to have. We can argue that the book provides an opportunity to have a painfully honest discussion about history and race and racism, but how many teachers are truly qualified to moderate such a discussion and make it a positive experience for all students? I would trust very few of my high school English teachers to do a decent job.
That said, I don’t believe a “cleansed” edition of the book is the answer. As an author, I don’t want someone else rewriting my books to make them more acceptable. And Mark Twain isn’t just literature; he’s history. I have strong misgivings about the way we revise history. To learn from the past, we have to be willing to look at our flaws and failures, not erase them.
Gribben is passionate about Twain’s work. My question for him is whether he believes the challenges to this book are appropriate. If not, then why is he giving in to them? If so — if schools are teaching these books to students who aren’t ready for them, or are presenting them in ways which are hurtful to students — then is the solution to present a bastardized edition of the text?
We don’t teach Ulysses to fifth graders because they’re not ready for it. I don’t know exactly when students are ready to tackle the raw and painful racial issues in Twain, but I don’t believe glossing those issues over or pretending they don’t exist is the way to go. There are so many wonderful, beautiful, powerful books out there … why is it so important that this one be pushed upon students before they’re ready? Maybe this is a book better taught at the college level instead of high school or junior high.
As a writer, a parent, and a former teacher, I obviously have some strong feelings about all of this. But like Gribben, I’m a white man up on my soap box about the use of “nigger” and “injun,” which is problematic for a number of reasons. It’s easy for me to say we should keep those words in the book — neither I nor my family are the ones who’ve been hurt by them. So if you’ve read this rather long post, then thank you … but please make sure my voice isn’t the only one you’re listening to.
Here are a few of the articles I read as I was trying to sort out my own thoughts and reaction:
- Taking the History Out of Huck Finn, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. (Including the comments.)
- Didn’t Huckleberry Finn Have the N-word in it?
- Should Mark Twain be Allowed to Use the N-word?
- My Nigger Story. (Including comments.)