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New edition of 'Huck Finn' cuts out the 'n' word

Posted by Rob Anderson  January 4, 2011 01:38 PM

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A new edition of Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" will be published without the "n word," according to this report in Publisher's Weekly. NewSouth Books and Twain scholar Alan Gribben have decided to replace the slur with the word "slave." (The scrubbed edition will also omit the word "Injun.")

Controversy surrounding the book's use of language is nothing new. A public library in Massachusetts banned the book shortly after its publication in 1884 because of its "tawdry subject matter" and "the coarse, ignorant language in which it was narrated." And the book has been censored and banned many times since.

Unsurprisingly, many have already criticized the move on free-speech grounds, while others have made some more original arguments. "A book like Professor Gribben has imagined," UCLA Professor Thomas Wortham told Publisher's Weekly, "doesn't challenge children [and their teachers] to ask, ‘Why would a child like Huck use such reprehensible language?'" At Firedoglake, Michael Whitney writes that "changing loaded, powerful words in a literary classic to better 'express it in the 21st century' is no better than George Lucas 'updating' the original Star Wars films to some bastardized, unrecognizable iteration of itself." Whitney argues that the new version of the book alters the author's "original intent" and will causes readers to ignore "the reality in which the book was written and the historical context that followed." AOL News highlights this pithy, funny Twitter quip : "Glad to see they are censoring Huckleberry Finn. Hopefully next they'll paint Snuggies onto all these nude people in old European art."

On the other side of the debate, Entertainment Weekly's Keith Staskiewicz forwards a novel argument in support of the book's alteration:

[I]f this puts the book into the hands of kids who would not otherwise be allowed to read it due to forces beyond their control (overprotective parents and the school boards they frighten), then maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to judge. It’s unfortunate, but is it really any more catastrophic than a TBS-friendly re-edit of The Godfather, you down-and-dirty melon farmer? The original product is changed for the benefit of those who, for one reason or another, are not mature enough to handle it, but as long as it doesn’t affect the original, is there a problem?

I would generally rush to the defense of any banned or altered book — the argument being that people are smart enough to make decisions about what they, their children, or their students should read, and that kids, for the most part, are able to handle mature language and topics better than adults give them credit for. But in this instance, there's a case to be made that the alteration is just not that big of a deal.

The "n" word today is not the same thing as it was 100 years ago. And while we shouldn't get in the habit of editing books as the meaning of words change over time (that's what footnotes are for, after all!), sometimes it's okay — especially when the meaning of a word, like the "n word," has changed so significantly. Yes, the "n word" was impolite and rude when Twain included it in the book — 219 times, to be exact — but it didn't carry the same historical, cultural, or political baggage that it does now. If any word deserves to be nixed, the "n word" would be it. Even with its omission, the book offers plenty of opportunities for teachers and parents to talk to kids about race.

What do you think? Vote in the poll above and/or leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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