Huck Finn and the Case of the Disappearing Word

Real life has precluded me from reading much today (although I plan to begin Sunnyside before bed), but no day is complete without my daily perusal of cnn.com, a habit I gained in college (thanks a lot, Nathan!).  There, I came across this interesting tidbit.  Apparently, New South Books is going to publish Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, longtime member of many a banned book list, without the “n word” or the word “injun.”  Twain scholar Alan Gribben that the move is not one of censorship, but simply an update.  The book must change with the times.

I have to confess that I have never actually finished The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and it holds little appeal for me as a novel.  As a piece of satire, I admire it.  I just can’t finish it.  But despite my disinterest in the book, I find this move appalling.  Twain is a humorist.  The book is satire.  The use of the word is designed to make you feel uncomfortable.  Twain wanted people to be rankled by the word’s use.  That’s the point.

Gribben’s argument holds no water.  You don’t update books.  Period.  Sorry, Alan.  We haven’t changed Shakespeare.  We haven’t changed Dickens’ clearly anti-semitic characters.  Books don’t get updated.  They stand as testaments to the people, circumstances and times that produced them.  And if they make us uncomfortable, that’s good.  It means we’re thinking about them.

The cnn article (which, who are we kidding, I originally read on ew.com but thought cnn sounded more legitimate) argues that this puts the book in the hands of children who wouldn’t otherwise be allowed to read the book because it’s “offensive.”  And I’m sure that’s true.  I’m sure there are parents and school boards across the country who will now let Twain’s awful, racist book into their homes and classrooms because it’s been neutered.  But what are they reading, then?  An adventure story about a boy and a slave (unless they change that to make Jim into a field hand or a classmate of Huck’s)?  Is that what Huck Finn REALLY is?  Why even bother reading it?  Read Tom Sawyer instead and call it a day.

So I’ll stick by my horrible, racist, 10th grade copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  And if that makes me unpopular, then “All right, then, I’ll go to hell” (Twain, chapter 31).

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Huck Finn and the Case of the Disappearing Word

  1. Bean

    Loved the post! What’s next, a Native Son with no violence?!?

  2. Pops (the stamp collecting curmudgeon)

    I admit it. I have never read a lick of Mark Twain.

    Recently while attending the celebration of Edwin “don’t call him Wilkes” Booth’s 177th birthday at the Players club which the thesbian co-founded with Twain (et al.) I fenagled myself onto a private tour of the exclusive Gramercy Park club with the manager as well as the president and two other reps from the Mark Twain museum. I saw the card table where Twain played cards and the porch from which he smoked and harassed the younger men and older women, his pool stick still hangs over the hearth. As the four others tried to out do eachother’s Twaindom I silently panicked. I could not name anything besides Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn never mind comment on the life of a man other than he had a penchant for cigars, white suits and boater hats. Thankfully they were all more than happy to exchange their fair share of anecdotes, each carefully constructed as to summon the great man himself. What they were really doing was congratulating themselves at what would turn out to be the upstart of a successful release of the Autobiography, and reveling in what must have been for them- one of the most intimate connections they could ever get to a man who I feel it is safe to say would have sooner been found in a sewing circle rather than giggling over an antique bierstein with an asian, three men varying from queer to down right queeny and a waifish woman who nodded and giggled on cue.

    Recently I read somewhere that Mark Twains essay on writing is one of the best things ever. And it’s funny. I think Cavett wrote about it in his latest book but I’m not sure.

    Either way I have an old copy of Huck Finn that my mother gave me. Its from the 50’s so I’m sure there will be no drought on “offensive” nomenclature. Funny enough it sits between Yann Martel (a Jew) and Malcom Gladwell (what Twain would refer to as a mullatto.)

    I’m really loving the blog.

  3. Agh! This frustrates me so much! Cleary someone isn’t thinking about the consequences of this move! Books arent just a pastime, they’re a historical record of a place, time and author! Down with this sort of thing!

    Ps. I had to read Huck Finn for my Irish leaving exams and didnt warm to it, but there was certainly no censorship of it!

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