It’s a classic, ya hear?
It has been 127 years since The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was first published in England. Mark Twain’s novel about young adventurous Huck on a journey down the Mississippi with Miss Watson’s runaway slave Jim is considered to be one of the great American novels. Even now, to find someone who has not heard a Huckleberry Finn reference or read the book themselves is an almost impossible task.
Its fame and mass reception is due in part to the way that Mark Twain wrote in the vernacular, emphasizing the actual speech of the area and the time. It’s this way of writing that has always brought controversy upon Huckleberry Finn. The debate started in 1905 when it was banned from libraries for being obscene. It carried on to radio in 1955 where all mention of slavery was deleted and Jim was played by a white actor. Most recently, the 2011 edition of the book published by NewSouth Books replaced the word “nigger” with “slave”.
The new cleaned-up version is receiving criticism because it is not just any book that is being censored – it’s a Mark Twain book. Famous for his ability to reflect the times, the culture, and the people of America, Mark Twain is essential in portraying how America was in the Huckleberry Finn era.
The controversial N-word, used 219 times in the novel, is there to serve a purpose. It is able to show the humanity of the sincere and gentle Jim character and contrast it with a derogatory and abusive name. Many people believe it is through this expression of contrast that Huckleberry Finn is an attack on racism itself.
So why change it now? The person behind the update is Mark Twain scholar Alan Gribben. Gribben said that he hoped the new edition would be friendlier for use in classrooms that might otherwise ban it from reading lists due to its language.
Although he was trying to avoid pre-emptive censorship, he has failed to understand societal implications of the substitution. The censorship will inevitably soften the book and therefore soften the message of racial inequality, all while smothering the actualities of American history.
Not only will it avoid understanding of humanity’s errors, it may lead to a terrifying future where the door is suddenly open to censoring any book. With this change to classic literature, we are removing the importance of our past and opening a gate to a horrific censorship-filled future. It’s not only the censorship of Huckleberry Finn that is concerning but also the precedent it sets. Literature is not meant to be socially pleasing, like a lapdog to the concerns of today, it is supposed to allow for a critical look at humanity and the decisions of societies in relation to our culture. Replacing the N-word in a literary context does not remove it as a concern in racial relations even today.
The literary community just marked the 100-year anniversary of Twain’s death. The censorship of his important coming-of-age book makes you wonder if he is rolling in his grave.