Huck Finn without the “n word”

Saw an article this morning that reported on a new edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that would replace every instance of the word “nigger” with the word “slave.” For instance, an excerpt from the new version’s chapter 2, where Huck comments on Jim’s behavior after Tom plays a trick on him (placing Jim’s hat in a tree while Jim sleeps), would read:

Jim was monstrous proud about it, and he got so he wouldn’t hardly notice the other [slaves]. [Slaves] would come miles to hear Jim tell about it, and he was more looked up to than any [slave] in that country. Strange [slaves] would stand with their mouths open and look him all over, same as if he was a wonder. [Slaves] is always talking about witches in the dark by the kitchen fire; but whenever one was talking and letting on to know all about such things, Jim would happen in and say, “Hm! What you know ’bout witches?” and that [slave] was corked up and had to take a back seat.

This is not the first time such an edition has been published.  Huck-critic John Wallace published a similar version a number of years ago which was much lampooned by academia, but now this new version has a much-respected Twain scholar on its side, Auburn University American literature professor Alan Gribben, who is leading the effort in an attempt to introduce more “general readers” to the classic, without the distasteful epithet.

It’s a misguided attempt.

Twain knew from the get-go that Huckleberry Finn would be considered by many to be an unsavory book.  That’s the point of the novel.  Slavery/racism/prejudice is detestable, and readers of the book SHOULD squirm when Huck starts throwing that word around.  Many defenders of the book (myself included) make the very valid point that “nigger” was the operative term for blacks in the South circa 1835-1845, when this book takes place.  But Twain’s use of the word goes beyond just “realism”.

When Huck uses the word, we squirm because it’s a 12 year old boy using the term, and to our 21st century sensibilities (as it was for Twain’s readers in the late 19th century) the term has no place in polite society.  It’s vulgar and hateful, but Huck just keeps using it.  There’s the point – Huck has been raised in a society that in Twain’s eyes is vulgar, is hateful, and Huck can’t help but use that term.  The prejudice has been taught to him – by Pap, by the Widow Douglas, by Miss Watson, by the church, by his school-teachers.  If Twain were to use another term (such as ‘slave’), the ugliness of St. Petersburg and the rest of the slave-holding South is white-washed (as it were), and instead of throwing its ugliness in our face, he’d be concealing that truth.   We as readers NEED to see the South as it was, and, more importantly to the novel’s progression, see just how deep Huck is influenced by his upbringing. Changing the language makes Huck’s decision to go to hell for Jim, despite all the shit society has taught him is “right”, less profound. No, Huck doesn’t stop using the word at that point in the novel.  But he has done something greater – he has attributed humanity to a “nigger”, shirking everything he has been taught.  And that’s why I teach the novel to my students – because of Huck’s decision to rise beyond the limitations and pettiness of what we call civilization for love.

Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a novel about the devastating effects of hate disguised as a boy’s adventure novel.  Perhaps if so many people did not carry such romanticized notions about Huck and Jim on the journey down the river there wouldn’t be such a fuss over the book.  We could better accept the novel as the biting satire it is, rather than a depiction of the halcyon days of youth that better describes Adventures of Tom Sawyer, a thematically inferior yet more pleasant read (because Twain is not challenging us in this one). Huck would be treated as an “adult” novel, and perhaps then it would be read with the understanding that it’s meant to make us uncomfortable, rather than indulge our nostalgia for a simpler past.

The controversy over Huck Finn will not end with Gribben’s new edition of the book.  Hell, the controversy’s been raging since 1885, when it was first published.  What the new edition will do, I’m afraid, is water down Twain’s message, water down Twain’s truth.   And I’m afraid it will fit right in in a world where even the risk of offending someone is an intolerable crime.

Twain knew this when he wrote: “Truth is the most valuable thing we have.  Let us economize it.”

Gribben’s edition does just that.

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One Response to “Huck Finn without the “n word””

  1. More political correctness crap! Gives me tired-head. I may go take a nap.

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