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Huckleberry Finn censorship fiasco

January 6, 2011

First of all happy new year to all Views Across The Pond readers.  I hope you all had a great christmas and are settling in to the new year with gusto. I spent the past couple of weeks relaxing at home with my husband and visiting family and genuinely turning off for a while.  But, I can’t stay away any longer, as hard as I try.

2011 is going to be an interesting year in terms of politics, what with the new 112th Congress sworn in yesterday (5 Jan).  But there was one subject that has peaked my interest over the past few days and I wanted to comment on it. I’m actually setting myself a target of at least a post a week in 2011.

It has been reported that the classic Mark Twain book Huckleberry Finn is being censored or as Auburn University Prof. Alan Gribben who is editing the new edition calls it, an “update”.

Along with the “N” word, over 200 other words will be “modernized”.

There’s is no arguing that the “N” word is a distasteful, offence word that has rightly been edged out of our vocabularly.  However by removing this (to be replaced with “slave”) and others such as ”Injun” with Indian, “half-breed” with half-blood (one wonders if Gribben has read Harry Potter where “half blood” is used as an offensive term), only weakens a book that has been very misunderstood.

Speaking to Publishers Weekly who originally broke the story Gribben says:

“This is not an effort to render Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn colorblind…Race matters in these books. It’s a matter of how you express that in the 21st century.”

However as much as that may be true, the problem is the book was not written in the 21st century and to remove/replace the words, to me, seems to water down the story and remove the context of point in history this book is written around.

As Sifynews points out:

In the entire book, Twain used the n-word 219 times, deliberately, to spotlight 19th century racism, and Morehouse University’s David Wall Rice says the words actually help Americans face the issue of racism.

“That word meant something. That word means something. We have to have the discussion about it. We can’t skate over it,” Rice said.

And here in lies the problem.  While Gribben is a scholar and fan of the book itself, and while it is undeniable schools have been removing the book from it’s shelves because of the language usage, by removing these words, the context of the book is lost or rather diminished.  This is not about shouting racist epitathes out on the school playground – that behavior should always be dealt with and neither is this about trying to poo-poo on people’s right decisions to stop racism.  The sad thing is people are missing the point, Twain’s book was a highlight on racial prejudice, a scathing look at entrenched attitudes, even though the book was released twenty years after the historical events written about.

By writing the book Twain was highlighting that these attitudes still existed and his use of language which gave an autheticness to the attitudes of the area, should be discussed, and not censored to placate a society not willing to discuss the merit of the story.

I understand very much that people will see the use of particular the “N” word as unforgivable and that it has no place in modern society – and I would agree, but what next, we remove “war” from “War and Peace”?

Over time the book has been the subject of much controversy, and has been challenged to be removed from schools because of the use of the “N” word.  For example the American Library Association says that the book was the most frequently challenged of the 1990’s.

Keith Staskiewicz writes that while the book has been one of the most misunderstood of it’s time, accused of “perpetuating the prejudiced attitudes it is criticizing” he does contend that:

…if this puts the book into the hands of kids who would not otherwise be allowed to read it due to forces beyond their control (overprotective parents and the school boards they frighten), then maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to judge. It’s unfortunate, but is it really any more catastrophic than a TBS-friendly re-edit of The Godfather, you down-and-dirty melon farmer? (EW)

The problem with this is as Professor Stephen Railton, another Twain scholar suggests, that by censoring we remove a part of America’s past and attempt to paint over an attitude that existed and will not learn from that attitude with the same vigour as we would if we saw the book as it was meant to be read. As a Yahoo article points out:

It is argued that replacing the “n-word” with “slave” desensitizes the individual denigration and dehumanization of Huck Finn’s river companion, Jim, whom the young boy, Huck, grows to admire and respect as the novel progresses.

Professor Stephen Railton himself has an unaltered version of the book coming out which includes notes and discussion points so teachers and students can explore the subjects of slavery and racism in the classroom.  As he puts it: “If we can’t do that in the classroom, we can’t do that anywhere”.

Washington Post blogger Alexandra Petri writes that “The word is terrible. But it’s a linchpin of this book…when the horror of slavery was still fresh and the specter of inequality hung over the whole country, Mark Twain was still able to use satire to show how wrong it was.”

It’s not that I do not understand the reasons but I do not think it right.  I feel that too often we loose the context and conception to analyze ourselves and learn from the past if we are too quick to try and cover up the past.  How do we grow, how do we learn if we are not shown the full horror’s of our past? As someone on Twitter points out:  “It’s not Huckleberry Finn that’s offensive, it’s American history that is offensive, and accurately portrayed in the book” (

BTW it should be noted Mark Twain himself wrote:

“the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter.”

7 Comments leave one →
  1. afrankangle permalink
    January 7, 2011 2:45 pm

    One question … how else are one learn about history if it continually changes? The original text simply provides a multitude of teachable moments.

    Welcome back … and Happy 2011!

    PS: If you didn’t see the Jimmy Kimmel clip about the transition of speakers, it’s on my site today. What a hoot!

    • January 7, 2011 3:42 pm

      Well said – of course history is changing – history is fluid in some respects – as we learn more about the events surrounding a historical event or time our knowledge changes with it and history is enriched but as you say how can we really learn when we remove the original text which “provides a multitude of teachable moments”.

      And thanks for the welcome back and same to you too.

      Will check out the clip at home tonight

      Thanks for checking in again

      • afrankangle permalink
        January 7, 2011 9:09 pm


        Here’s a post I read by a young lady in the U.S. about the same topic. Many comments here, thus thought you may be interested.


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  2. Huckleberry Finn novel new version removes N-word and other offensive words, draws reactions | simplyfreak
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