Huckleberry Finn, Censor-style: Removing the N-word from Huck Finn

The following post could also be retitled "In Which I Hop on the Bandwagon and Defend the Original Huck Finn." But I can't help voicing my opinion, which is why I have my own blog, in which I play writer, editor and publisher.

In case you all have completely missed it, after years and years of fighting on and off the banned books list, an editor has actually succeeded in publishing a version of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn with the n-word replaced with "slave" throughout the text. A bit shockingly, the editor of the text is a professor and Mark Twain scholar - two groups notoriously against censorship in literature. In the introduction to the new edition, published by New South Books, Dr. Alan Gribben defends his decision:
"We may applaud Twain’s ability as a prominent American literary realist to record the speech of a particular region during a specific historical era, but abusive racial insults that bear distinct connotations of permanent inferiority nonetheless repulse modern-day readers."
He goes on to assume that Mark Twain "presumably would have been quick to adapt his language if he could have foreseen how today’s audiences recoil at racial slurs in a culturally altered country." The only solid "evidence" he has that this version is, in fact, better than the original is an anecdote about teaching a class in which both he and his students were uncomfortable when discussing the word.

Quite honestly, I don't even know where to begin. Ultimately, the new "edition" of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn seems to amount to little more than censorship. If censorship is defined as the "suppression or deletion of anything considered to be objectionable," and Dr. Gribben has removed the n-word because it is repulsive to modern-day readers, I fail to see how this is not censorship. If the word was objectionable during the time of writing - which historians as well as Dr. Gribben argue - and the word is still objectionable now, I fail to see how we can assume that Mark Twain would now choose to write a different, less-offensive version.

I have not read any of Twain's work since high school - though I hope to remedy that soon - but the main takeaway that I recall from his work was precisely that in a very pro-slavery time, in a pro-slavery area, Twain himself was remarkably anti-slavery - and not afraid to discuss it. His incorporation of the derisive word falls in with his use of a whole host of inappropriate or objectionable slang (both then and now), and this, we are taught, was precisely the point. To feel the need to remove the objectionable bits is to fail to understand the text. That, and as readers, it is never our place to assume what the now-dead author would prefer now. That is overstepping our boundaries.

Or so my high-school English teacher would say. What about you? Is this censorship, or a reasonable way to make a dated text more acceptable to a modern audience? Is this a one-off incident, or the starting slide down a slippery slope?

For more information (and some solid entertainment), check out the following:


  1. Very well said, Kerry. It's just a traveshamockery! Thanks for the Colbert link, too - hadn't seen that. Laughed my arse off - Twain with the Raiders hat. The New York Times, which by the way is my n-word.....Bling!

  2. This is all about limiting Free Speech. After all, censorship is everywhere. The gov’t (and their big business cronies) censor free speech, shut down dissent and ban the book “America Deceived II”. Free speech for all.
    Last link (before Google Books bans it also]:

  3. Nice post and thank you for the Colbert link! I'm glad to see so much backlash against the bowdlerized version of Huck Finn. Perhaps this will convince people to read (or re-read) the uncensored version.

    Love the Twain quote by the way. It's so fitting.

  4. Amen! I saw this on the news yesterday and have been trying to collect my thoughts enough to write a post on it as well. Either way, I very much agree with you. If Huck Finn is changed because of this, then so must every other book that uses offensive, racial or otherwise, words or ideas. Many of classic literature's favorite books would have to be altered, for I am sure there is someone somewhere that could find something offensive within their pages.
    In addition to this, if such a thing can be done, then what is stopping scholars and publishing companies from changing (not banning) books like Lolita for their unsavory topics? Just because nasty words are switched for something less bold, it doesn't mean that an idea or a theme isn't being covered up at the same time. In Twain's case, and not to put so much emphasis on one word, a satirical one at that.

  5. Greg - Thanks. Glad you enjoyed the Colbert video. And I love "traveshamockery"!

    Anon - I don't know that's it's limiting free speech, as the original version IS still available - actually much more widely available than the censored version. My concern is more that this could be the first step in a loooong line of removing objectionable content from literature.

    Red - It certainly has me interested in picking up the titles again. Generally the effect of banning (or in this case, censoring!) seems to be a rise in interest in the title in question. And the quote came from the Guardian article - isn't it perfect for this argument??

    She - Well said, all around. Many works of literature are offensive on purpose (like Twain's), to further the author's point. That, and it's impossible to write a book that is peachy-keen for every single reader, so someone is bound to find "offensive" matter in anything. Personally, I'm offended by Dan Brown's lack of sentence structure. Can I re-write his book?

  6. In one of my high school English classes, we read everything from Mark Twain to Tim O'Brien to August Wilson. In response to a question about language or offensive subject matter, our wonderful teacher said, It wouldn't be realistic without those words or issues. In fact, the removal or replacement of them would degrade the believability of the story. Simple and to the point. That explanation has stayed with me and is incredibly appropriate for this argument.

  7. Emily - The same argument definitely applies to other titles, and you're right that it wouldn't be realistic if toned down. I can see why it stayed with you. By the way, let's find a time to catch up soon, yes?


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