Generally speaking, I am against the censorship of literature. Taking a look at the American Library Association’s list of Banned and/or Challenged Books, which includes a list of books, place and years of bans and/or challenges and the reason behind the challenges, can be a frustrating, and even a saddening experience for anyone who cherishes free speech, great literature and the dialogue over ideas, no matter how challenging some ideas may be. It is because of my typically strong feelings on this issue that a story that was published this week in Publishers Weekly caught my attention. It was announced this week that a small publishing company, New South Books, would be printing a new version of Mark Twain’s classic, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and in this revised version, by English Professor and Twain Scholar Alan Gribben, the word “nigger” will be omitted from the text, and replaced with the word “slave” and the term “Injun” will be replaced by “Indian”. What was particularly interesting to me in this story was the author’s and the publisher’s justification for these changes. As a person who has devoted his life to the works of Twain, Gribben has reworked the American masterpiece in the hopes of expanding the readership of the book, especially among young students and the general public who presumably may be offended by the original language, or in the case of students, too young or lacking the intellectual context to properly understand Twain’s intent behind the language. According to Gribben, the book has been banned countless times for reasons of language, or it has simply not been taught by teachers who felt uncomfortable in introducing the work into their classrooms. For Gribben, the removal of what essentially amounts to a little over 200 words was worth any criticism he might face if the end result is that the book is introduced into many more American classrooms and more young people are afforded the opportunity to be introduced to Twain.
My own views on this story are mixed, and perhaps the reason why I write this post, to gauge the reactions of others to this particular case. On the one hand, I wonder about what seems like an attempt to whitewash history and to pretend as if this type of language was never a normal part of American life. By neglecting to use the original works in the classroom, or by using this new version of the text, are educators missing the opportunity to delve into the realities of American history and into the state of race relations, both past and present in the United States? Furthermore, are students being robbed of the opportunity to be offended by language in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Twain was a keen observer, as well as critic of American life, and he was ahead of his time in exposing some of the hypocrisies in American race relations. In forming a meaningful friendship with the slave Jim, the character Huck is forced to confront some of the lessons that he has learned in his own short life, and to question that values that he was brought up with. Huck, in his journey down the river, comes to recognize the humanity of Jim and is forced to grapple with a number of moral issues, including the contradiction between his newfound realizations and his old language.
On the opposite side of the issue, I am also sympathetic to Gribben’s reasoning. Gribben is simply looking for way to make Twain a bigger part of American English curriculums, and to expose more children to the writing of Mark Twain – surely not a bad goal in and of itself. By omitting a small number of words Gribben may be able to do this. The ultimate hope is that once exposed to Twain some children will become hooked and go on, in later years, to read the original versions as Twain himself wrote them.
On the Publishers Weekly online comments section to this story the debate on this issue has been fierce, with the majority of commentators opposed to the editorial changes for both reasons of literary purism and a perceived whitewash of history. The full story, as published by Publishers Weekly, is available at Publishersweekly.com, and a portion of the author’s introduction and explanatory note as it will appear in the revised version is available for view at the NewSouth Books website, www.newsouthbooks.com. Decide for yourself what you think on this issue.