As a literature professor, I see daily how words inspire, challenge, and offend. Every year, I kick off my American Literature survey course with Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn so that my students can explore the impact of words for themselves.
Though many approach Huckleberry Finn as a pleasant adventure story depicting a more innocent 19th century America, once they read it carefully, they realize its complexity. Look below the surface of the humor and adventure and you’ll find a novel that probes such painful issues as alcoholism, religious hypocrisy, and racism.
Controversial from the moment it came off the press 126 years ago, Huckleberry Finn made news again late last year when publisher NewSouth Books announced plans to release a new edition in which the word “nigger” would be replaced with the word “slave.” The news incited an overwhelmingly negative reaction from readers, scholars, and journalists alike. When I told my students, their harsh responses echoed the views of other commentators across the country—It’s not right to change an author’s words simply to make a book more politically correct. Twain’s use of that racial epithet is historically accurate, and it is wrong to sugarcoat history to make it more palatable for modern readers. Twain does not endorse racism with his use of the “n-word,” he satirizes it (my students use the n-word euphemism as they are uncomfortable saying the actual offensive word even as they defend Twain’s use of it).
Twain’s novel has been on somebody’s list of banned books since its first publication, but the reasons for each new generation’s complaint with the book keep changing. Racial epithets did not bother the original readers; they were more put off by Huck’s bad grammar. The Concord, Massachusetts Public Library issued this condemnation when the book first came out:
“It deals with a series of adventures of a very low grade of morality; it is couched in the language of a rough dialect, and all through its pages there is a systematic use of bad grammar and an employment of rough, coarse, inelegant expressions. It is also very irreverent….It deals with a series of experiences that are certainly not elevating….It is trash of the veriest sort.”
Rough dialect? Inelegant expressions? Irreverence? Those are the very things readers love about the book today, and without them, Huckleberry Finn would long ago have faded out of the canon of American literature. It makes no more sense to appease today’s readers by removing offensive words than it would have for Twain to have corrected Huck’s grammar to mollify the Concord Library board. The book is what it is, and as long as I teach it, my students will read Twain’s own words.
However, the idea of the sanitized edition of the novel has merit. The new edition’s editor, Professor Alan Gribben, makes it clear that his book doesn’t replace the standard edition, which is still readily available for anyone who wants to use it. Rather, it targets junior high or high school teachers for whom the racial epithets might have been a barrier. Is it better for students to read an edited Huckleberry Finn than not to read it at all?
Some may ask, are students really so sensitive that they have trouble reading a racial epithet in a novel set in the era of American slavery? Keep in mind, the offensive term appears not just 3 or 4 times, but a total of 219 times. If students read the book out loud in a junior high English class, how much discomfort would that repeated word cause? One African-American man who read the book in junior high recounted his own distress years later in a letter to the New York Times:
“I can still recall the anger I felt as my white classmates read aloud the word ‘nigger.’ In fact, as I write this letter I am getting angry all over again. I wanted to sink into my seat. Some of the whites snickered, others giggled. I can recall nothing of the literary merits of this work you term ‘the greatest of all American novels.’ I only recall the sense of relief I felt when I would flip ahead a few pages and see that the word ‘nigger’ would not be read that hour.”
Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn for adults, not children, and some students may not be mature enough to handle its sometimes-disturbing content. But for my college students, I keep teaching it because it does all the things I want literature to do. It raises issues not easily resolved. It challenges. It inspires. It entertains. It makes students laugh one minute and squirm the next. I have taught it more than 30 times, and I can’t wait to delve into it again.
Joseph Bentz, Ph.D., is a professor of American literature and author of A Son Comes Home, Pursuit of God, and other books listed on his website, www.josephbentz.com. firstname.lastname@example.org