Removing the N-word and “Injun” from Mark Twain’s classic does a disservice to the author and readers.
Considered a great classic and a sharp social criticism of 19th century United States, the “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain, published in 1885, has sparked a debate in 2011. The main issue lies with the liberal use of the N-word, which is printed 219 times.
To relieve the uncomfortable feeling readers get speaking the word, Alan Gribben, an English professor at Auburn University, brought the idea of replacing the N-word with the word “slave” and the word “Injun” with “Indian” to NewSouth Books, a publishing company in Alabama.
Whether teachers and administrators like it or not, students will hear the N-word. The lyrics in a number of modern day songs use the same ugly sentiments within it (usually worse), so perhaps it is best to discover these ugly words in a setting where it can be discussed and used to educate about some of the ugliness of U.S. history.
“I found myself right out of graduate school at Berkeley not wanting to pronounce that word when I was teaching either ‘Huckleberry Finn’ or ‘Tom Sawyer,’” Gribben told the New York Times in a Jan. 4 article. “And I don’t think I’m alone.”
He is certainly not alone; while reading Twain in high school, I too felt and noticed the uncomfortable atmosphere created from the racial slur. However, removing that word, no matter how vitriol, could take away from Twain’s words and dialogue that we as a society need to have about race in U.S. history.
Gribben’s version of the book may be more accessible for new readers and not as alienating, especially in the classroom. NewSouth Books agrees and is printing 7,500 books, sparking a large amount of criticism.
Critics have attacked the publisher and Gribben suggesting they are sacrificing the true voice of Twain and 19th century American literature in favor of censorship and political correctness.
Rebecca Goodacre, an English major and exchange student at Temple, said she believes there is much to be lost through this censor.
“By removing this word from the novel you lose historical perspective, especially when considering the race relations of the American South in the 19th century,” Goodacre said. “The novel loses its authenticity, as the author’s true words are not expressed.”
Dr. Jayne Drake, the vice dean of academic affairs in the College of Liberal Arts, disagrees with any assumption that Twain’s use of the N-word was an extension of racism. It’s possible he used it to portray the language used during that time period.
“Twain knew it was a charged word but used it anyways to show man’s inhumanity toward man,” she said. “We must keep in mind authorial intention as well as the time in which it was written, otherwise we are doing a disservice to the literary and historical context.”
Twain is an author who has much to offer his readers. His sharp critiques of 19th century society offers readers a historical perspective they can understand. Losing his first-hand voice truly is a “disservice,” as Drake said.
The N-word does make many readers uncomfortable, but perhaps that is good. We should feel uncomfortable about the disgusting racial epitaph, and Twain gives us a literary outlet where we can learn that.
U.S. history at times is hard to look at, but the U.S. needs to face and accept its past, not run from it.
Phillip McCausland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.