A revised edition of the classic American novel, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain, intended to be less offensive and “cleaner” for the classroom, is set to be published next month.
This “sanitized” version will exchange every use of “nigger” for “slave,” which appears 218 times in Twain’s novel, according to the revised edition’s introduction, written by the book’s editor, Alan Gribben.
Gribben’s motive for the revision was to make available a youth-friendly work of American Literature that doesn’t “repulse modern readers.” He reminds readers, however, that Twain purposely used this sort of language to show the social realities of the 1840s, which included slandering African Americans.
The company publishing the book, NewSouth, valued Gribben’s endeavor and saw his revision as an opportunity to take Twain’s work off the shelf of respected, but neglected classic books, according to its website.
Its planned publication has sparked several debates across the country, evidenced by countless articles in publications around the country in the last month. Subjects range from diminishing the work’s integrity to changing Twain’s intended tone and themes to issues of censorship.
The original version of Huckleberry Finn has been both praised for its portrayal of American southern life and criticized for its brash confrontation with racism. The novel is a sequel to “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” and follows two boys, Huck Finn and Jim, a slave and Finn’s best friend, as they journey down the Mississippi river in search of adventure and freedom.
Since its original publication in 1884, the language has been a point of controversy and continues to be one of the most challenged books in the United States, according to Time’s “Top 10 Censored Books” list.
Cal Poly English professor Carol MacCurdy, who specializes in American literature, said this controversy should be known and understood by students.
“Race is a very important issue and I think it is important that students be educated about racial issues,” MacCurdy said. “It’s also important that they be shocked by the word (‘nigger’).”
MacCurdy views language as a tool and points out that Twain was not the only author to use the word.
“Hemingway also uses the racial slur in his famous novel The Sun Also Rises,” Maccurdy said. “Some writers use it to show that their characters are racist or that the culture the characters live in is a racist culture and that they have absorbed the racism. This is true of Twain, Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor.”
Both personally and academically, MacCurdy does not approve of the revisions to Huckleberry Finn.
“As a lover of literature and language, I would be very opposed to sanitizing the novel,” MacCurdy said. “The fact that the characters use the offensive racial slur doesn’t condone its usage … I teach Southern fiction, so this is an issue that comes up a lot and that students learn much from. They would not if the texts were sanitized.”
On the other hand, Eldra Avery, who teaches English at San Luis Obispo High School, does not think replacing “nigger” for “slave” changes the meaning or context of the story at all. In fact, she has been doing so herself when reading passages to her students all 24 years she has taught the book.
“I just can’t say that word out loud,” Avery said.
Avery attended college during the civil rights movement and comes from a time when the word “nigger” was absolutely intolerable, she said.
“I remember when I first read it in 1986 and I was thinking, ‘Oh, wow. The racial slur is problematic,’” Avery said.
So when teaching the the book to students, she briefs them about its racist language.
“Before they even have it in their hands, I address it,” Avery said.
As part of the high school curriculum, Avery is mandated to teach Huckleberry Finn. And while she maintains personal problems with the book, she would still include it in students’ book lists if she were to create her own.
“There are portions of it I really love,” Avery said. “I think Huck does some pretty admirable stuff. He starts the novel as a racist and he thinks he’s going to sacrifice his immortal life for Jim (a slave). I think there are some really important lessons to be learned from this novel.”
Avery sees the changes to Huckleberry Finn as a way to censor victimization.
“Take child pornography, for example,” Avery said. “Why don’t we as a society accept it? Because it victimizes someone. When you’re using slurs — racial slurs, gender slurs, homosexuality slurs — I think you’re victimizing people.”
While censorship and controversial issues have played a part in high school classrooms, such problems have not been encountered with notable distinction at Cal Poly at least during her 14 years with the school, said Kathryn Rummell, the chair of the English department.
“Occasionally individual instructors will have students in their classes who are uncomfortable with the language or material, but that’s not censorship,” Rummell said. “That’s more at the high school level; there’s nothing like that at the college level.”
Conversely, Gribben said in his introduction that the racial issues in this and other controversial books are prevalent at all levels of learning.
“Even at the level of college and graduate school, students are capable of resenting textual encounters with this racial appellative,” Gribben wrote.
NewSouth ultimately hopes to bring to light the issues of language and race in literature.
“If the publication sparks good debate about how language impacts learning or about the nature of censorship or the way in which racial slurs exercise their baneful influence, then our mission in publishing this new edition of Twain’s works will be more emphatically fulfilled,” continued the company’s statement.