“Huck Finn, Censorship and the N-Word”

That is the title of this article, which looks at the recent controversy surrounding a new edition of Huckleberry Finn.  The new edition has a couple of textual alterations, the biggest of which is the elimination of 200 occurrences of the N-word, and the substitution of “slave” for them. 

The article linked to does a fair job, I think, of summarizing the pros and cons, along with giving a full picture of who is doing it. 

The biggest point against the change mentioned in her article  is that we loose the record of racism.  We could add to this a worry about simply changing what are regarded as great art works.  Anyone for clothing statues, for example?

There is also a good reason for making the change, the author argues.  This has to do with the harm involved  in the reiteration of racist discourse.

I’m a bit puzzled by why our choices have to be so simple:  take it out or leave it in.  Typographically there ought to be ways to keep the N-word on the page (perhaps in a separate column along with arcane terms).  What do you think?

28 thoughts on ““Huck Finn, Censorship and the N-Word”

  1. My only big thought on the matter is this: was anyone, when they read this book in high school, taking anything from the language other than the opportunity to use the N-word in class? I know my schoolmates didn’t. I understand that the original version has power under more critical reading, but teens don’t take it seriously in that light, generally.

  2. I’m just shocked that this could even be permitted, republishing a dead author’s novel with a word that offends readers consistently changed to something the character would never have said? Holy hell, that’s horrifying. It’s not a couple of changes, it’s over two hundred changes, and a form of censorship that depresses me to no end. If high school students can’t handle it, or a teacher doesn’t want to use the word, that’s a reason to reconsider teaching it in pedagogical settings, but to alter the author’s work, good gravy, that’s so wrong.

    I followed the embedded links to the story in which the editor says, “I am by no means sanitizing Mark Twain.” Yes, he is. The fact that it’s not a complete rewrite doesn’t make his censorship less of its kind of censorship. It’s just to a lesser degree than it could’ve been.

  3. Racist attitudes aside, teens (and adults!) like to shock; its up to instructors to get around this and get them to a critical reading or have enough sense to not teach it, if they are not capable or it or is not just possible in the institutional context.

    Anyway, I’m pretty sure the unexpurgated version of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not a go-to recruitment text for the white supremacy movement.

  4. Honestly, I don’t see the possibility of a compromise here. I find any changes to the text of this sort grossly offensive, and I think that anyone with serious worries about the language should find a different text to use for courses.

  5. Texts are altered a lot. I’m not keen on it, but I don’t know that I think the idea is so shocking. Shakespeare’s plays get large pieces lopped off, old English texts – and even older modern English texts – get put more into our vernacular.

    I think it is at least as questionable to have a class read a racist text. It is painful if there are African americans in the class, and distasteful if it is read only in their absence. All in my humble opinion, of course.

  6. I don’t think you can get the message of the book if you alter the text in this way. No one says that you have to say the n-word in class. But the book was meant to be shocking — in more ways than one.

  7. jj: In what way(s) is *Huck Finn* a racist text? Or were you just making a general point?

    Even if one takes it as not a racist text, your misgivings aren’t unreasonable, in my view–much would depend on the class composition, the institution the class was taught in, and the approach the instructor took.

  8. Though I’m not endorsing the n-word’s removal, there is so much in Huck Finn, I really don’t think the message is dependent on it being there.

  9. Let’s remember 1984 and how thought was manipulated by slowing but surely altering recorded history. This is just a step in that direction. You don’t solve racism by pretending that it never existed.

  10. Slocum, thanks for your question. I did mean to speak generally, and I didn’t mean to imply that HF is a racist text.

    Oblomov, I am doubtful about the 1984 analogy, but I think sanitizing the past is fraught with problems.

    Kathryn, that sounds right.

  11. I’m worried that maybe someone (students, teachers, etc.) would think that removing the word has removed the racism (not that the text is racist, but there *is* racism represented in the text).

    I think that kind of confusion could be really damaging.

    But I don’t remember Huck Finn well enough to really be able to think through this very well.

    If the edits were transparent (footnotes like jj suggests, or maybe strikethroughs like in blog posts), I don’t think it would bother me. Transparency is important–in all sorts of sanitizing, I think most of the negative effects of the sanitizing are removed if it’s done transparently.

    (A preface or something explaining about the substitution isn’t really transparent enough for me in this case.)

    Sorry my thoughts are so disjointed here… thanks for bringing this up, jj!

  12. I thought Renee of Womanist Musings summed up why this change is wrong quite nicely:

    “Whether we like it or not, nigger has not disappeared and can be heard in everything from popular music to movies. We are not safe from its assaultive substance by erasing and sanitizing its existence in one book. If we really want to challenge the use of the word nigger, we need to explain how it came into existence and why its continued usage is harmful, rather than pretending that there was a magical time in which Blacks and Whites were buddies despite oppression. Huckleberry Finn teaches us that even as Whites believe that they are being friendly and creating bonds, because of racial imbalance, they still have the ability at anytime to cause pain by invoking their supposed racial superiority. Some apologist may not believe in the veracity of this statement, but any person of colour who has had a White friend can tell a painful story of betrayal. The slave Jim teaches us nothing, but Jim the nigger reminds us that U.S. is a land filled with systemic inequalities that have yet to be conquered.”

  13. When I read HF as a kid, I was shocked by the language. What Mark Twain invites you to do is to see the world through Huck’s racist eyes, and also to see the (not complete, but substantial) change in attitude that Huck undergoes in the course of the story. Some people, unfortunately, miss that message entirely. The more you water Huck’s voice down, the less of an effect that message will have. Of course, there are still important messages in the book even so — I don’t want to deny that. But one of the main messages that people have felt is important about the book will be lessened. And I think having a bunch of sanitized footnotes/cross-outs/whatever will impair the reading of the book and hearing Huck’s voice. Don’t forget that another thing that Twain was known for was his ability to hear, and write in, real spoken language. You can’t appreciate that with a bunch of footnotes, strikeouts, etc. And “slave” instead of the n-word will ring false. I’d rather see the book not read at all.

  14. Well, I’m not sure because I suspect that the n-word was far less shocking when the text was written that it is now. I’m also not sure because I think even if the word were changed to slave, the racist attitude in the dialogue would not be erased. Think of the way sometimes the otherwise non-offensive word “woman” is used in an offensive way, e.g. coupled with a command like “Woman, get in here!”

  15. Yes, I know that usage of “woman”; “Jew” has been used the same way. So, you imagine that the reader is going to create a brand new and similar usage for the term “slave” and project it back into the past, despite the lack of any similar usage of the term “slave” elsewhere? (Please correct me if I’m wrong on that). And that will seem like a realistic depiction and get the point across? Sorry, I don’t buy it.

  16. Huck Finn is a work of art, and in a work of art, every detail has meaning and value.

    One of the pleasures of reading Huck Finn, as I recall, is Twain’s prose style, in which every word counts.

    If school authorities believe that Huck Finn is too “dangerous” to be read in school, eliminate from the school curriculum, but don’t prune it.

    In fact, better eliminate it from the school curriculum. As I recall, that I had to read a book in school inevitably spoiled the book for me.
    Huck Finn is too great a book to be left in the hands of the schools.

  17. No, that’s not what I meant. I meant that replacing the n-word with a non-offensive term won’t remove the racism, because it is very present in the text surrounding the n-word. And given the change over time in how society at large views the n-word, I wonder if a less offensive term might read more like how the n-word was read when it was written.

    All that said, again, I am not endorsing the n-words removal. I tend to think works of art should be alterred as little as possible, and that HF is important literary text in the history of America’s relationship with racism.

  18. Ah, sorry, Kathryn, I misunderstood you. I see what you mean now, and I agree that the characters of the book still exhibit racism even without the n-word. I guess I am not that sure that the n-word was less offensive at the time when Twain wrote HF. (And perception and use of the n-word is so complex in today’s society that its difficult to even make the comparison). But I do think that Twain intended there to be a stark contrast between the name “N- Jim” and the person that Jim was.

  19. amos, I hadn’t thought of it before, but a translator might have a very keen eye for what is and is not essential to the text.

  20. I don’t have much literature in English to consult, but thinking quickly about a text or poem or song which is objectionable, I came up with the Rolling Stones song, “Under My Thumb”, a hymn to machismo if there ever was one.

    Let’s change it to “Submitted according to Gender Role Stereotypes”, and there’s no point in listening to it: the rock is gone, gone away for good.

    It’s not a song which you would play if you’re trying to instruct contemporary teenagers about gender roles, but I for one would not elminate it from the Republic, even if Plato would.

    It seems to me that great literature and even good rock like the early Rolling Stones lets you travel, albeit mentally and temporarily, to psychic places, where you would not normally spend time and that’s good. There are places which are great to visit, the world of Mark Twain or of Mick Jagger/Keith Richards, but where you wouldn’t want to live.

  21. I don’t really think the comparison between the rolling stones and huck Finn is apt, but since we are bringing up rock songs, I wish the dire straits would re-release their most famous song without the anti-gay slur. Nothing essential to the “message” of that song would be lost. Unlike, say, huck finn

  22. To use a more direct analogy, there is an Elvis Costello song that uses the n-word. Every time I hear it, it sends chills up my spine. I’m sure there are those that would have it bleeped or edited out, but the song would not be the same without it.

  23. I used the song as an example, because I don’t have a copy of Huck Finn or access to a public library with books in English. I wanted to show how changing one word, because of political or ethical objections, ruins a good book or song.

    It seems to me that we teach literature in school for 3 reasons.

    1. To teach good writing. In this case, changing a word which the author carefully selected is counterproductive.

    2. To reflect on ethical issues and on the problems of living. Huck Finn is about liberation from adult responsibility and respectability and from slavery (Jim is escaping), which could stimulate classroom reflection. However, if the “n” word is offensive, perhaps it is not the best text to select for young readers in a classroom setting. The idea of forcing young readers to digest the classics before they are ready for them often turns those works into dreary tasks.

    3. To teach the history of culture. The institution of slavery and the racism of much of U.S. culture are basic facts of that nation’s history, which every student should be aware of.

  24. Amos, your comment surprises me, because many classics are now available free on the internet. This site says it has a copy of the original HC.

    I’m now wondering about the following: suppose there was a “classic text” with the work “c..T” in it. Two hundred times. It’s actually likely that the repetition of that word in a class that had young men would have psychologically a not very good effect. There’s all sorts of evidence for words in one context affecting attitudes and behavior in another. Does this change my mind?

    It does make me wonder about the canon, yet again. I don’t want to erase past racism. I don’t want to encourage present racism. I also don’t want just to take a private stand on this public issue – e.g., decide not to assign it myself. I think that there is a case to be made for finding a way to notate the text so that some of the adverse effects of the n-words 200 appearances are mitigated.

  25. J.J.,

    Yes, I know that classics are available online, but I’m dated. I get up and consult my dictionary if I need to look for a definition and I prefer to walk to the public library to consult a text rather than to read it online.

    Let’s take classics which use words which lead readers to see women in a extremely sexist manner, for example, Henry Miller or Sade. I see no reason for a class of 15 year-olds or even 18 year-olds to read them.

    Once again, there is no need for everyone to read Huck Finn, if it is judged that that book can have a negative influence on students.

    However, what I don’t see is why assign mutilated books to students.
    One purpose behind reading literature in school, which I omitted in my list above, is to develop a taste for reading good books in students.
    Giving students books to read with clumsy words substituted for those of the author is not a good way to attract them towards the world of letters. Reading is or should be a lifelong habit and pleasure: surely, a student who is introduced to the joys of reading great books
    while young will wander into the world of Twain and perhaps of Henry Miller in the many years which stretch ahead after finishing school. If he or she prefers not to venture into Twain or Miller and travels through other authors, fine. The danger, as I see it, is that reading bad versions of good books will be one more factor, among so many others, which distance young people from the pleasures and benefits of reading.

  26. If you amend the text are you not only partly mitigating the problem?
    A word like N****r or C**t are offensive because they are used in a offensive context – if we replace the words with ‘slave’ or ‘woman that I dont like’ in a particular book there is still so much implicit normalization of racism and sexism in that text…

    To encourage poeple to use the book but just replace the words seems like an awkward halfway house between theories.

  27. I say we should simply go looking for older editions of the book, that aren’t censored. It looks like this thing isn’t going to be stopped.

    Does anyone else find the substitution of “slave” for the n-word WAY more offensive than the original word? Maybe it’s just me…

    And yes, it’s 1984 all over again. It took a quarter century longer than Orwell thought it would, but it’s happening. The worst part is, it’s happening in the name of TRYING to better ourselves, and that’s scariest of all….

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