Thursday, January 13, 2011

Mark Twain once described a classic as “a book which people praise and don't read.” That has been true for years of Twain’s classics about the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. That may be about to change.

By now I’m sure that most people have heard that NewSouth Books plans a February release of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in one volume, as Twain had intended. What you also may have heard is that NewSouth engaged the services of Twain scholar Allan Gribben to replace two “hurtful epithets” (the “n” word and Injun) that appear hundreds of times in the two works. As with any bold move, there are arguments to support opposing views on the subject.

Throughout his years in education, Dr. Gribben says he was approached by many teachers who lamented how they couldn’t use Huckleberry Finn in their classrooms because it wasn’t acceptable any more. He became determined to find a solution that would allow school children as well as other readers to enjoy all that the novel had to offer. His solution was to substitute the word “slave” for the “n” word. "This is not an effort to render Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn colorblind," he said. “Race matters in these books. It's a matter of how you express that in the 21st century."

“I'm hoping that people will welcome this new option, but I suspect that textual purists will be horrified," Gribben said, and he was right. Many who find the books racially offensive welcome the work that Dr. Gribben and NewSouth have produced. Others disagree.

A New York Times editorial on January, 5, 2011, stated, “We are horrified, and we think most readers, textual purists or not, will be horrified, too. The trouble isn’t merely adulterating Twain’s text. It’s also adulterating social, economic and linguistic history. Substituting the word “slave” makes it sound as though all the offense lies in the “n-word” and has nothing to do with the institution of slavery. Worse, it suggests that understanding the truth of the past corrupts modern readers, when, in fact, this new edition is busy corrupting the past.”

James Duban, a professor of English at the University of North Texas, disagrees. He thinks the most important thing is to get children reading. He says, "In today's wasteland of 'gaming' and other electronic distractions, I applaud any effort to perpetuate the reading and enjoyment of great fiction."

A Los Angeles Times editorial argues that Twain’s novel is a moving work of the pre-Civil War South and that the language is very much a part of the story and the history. It goes on to say, “Trying to protect students from the full ugliness of racism by softening that language does a disservice to them, and it's all too easy to imagine the crimes against literature that would result if this kind of thing caught on."

As the debate escalates, NewSouth announced last week that they were increasing their first print run from 7,500 to 10,000 books. NewSouth publisher Suzanne La Rosa was quoted in Publishers Weekly as saying that they had anticipated the controversy but not the volume of it. “I hope this is good for Twain, and it probably isn’t bad for NewSouth,” she said.

What is your opinion of this controversy? Do you approve of the changes in Mark Twain’s works and think this new book will be more appropriate for readers in the 21st century? Do you agree with those who say that there’s no need to change words that can be explained to young readers? Or do you think that no matter how the words are changed in the two novels, they will forever be a reminder of a past that is still painful for many Americans? Leave a comment. I’m eager to see what you think.


  1. Having read "Huckleberry Finn" in English class as a ninth-grader, and having read some of what is taught in literature classes today, I think the verbiage they have zeroed in on in Twain's works are much easier to explain to students than modern slang and obscenities. I think children need to know what went on in our history, and that we've figured out, since then, that it was wrong thinking. Being FROM the South, I grew up hearing some of these terms, and was taught from an early age that it was WRONG to use them. Shouldn't we use everything as a teachable moment?

  2. Those who whitewash the past may be just as doomed to repeat it as those who ignore it.

  3. I totally agree, Diane. I get SO angry when people try to whitewash history for fear it may offend. Pardon me, but man is offensive sometimes, and rather than try to pretend they're not, why not learn from the mistakes of our past and move on??

  4. Can't help but think of that horrible tyrant, murderer in WWII burning the books! I may not agree or have any desire to read many books but this isn't right. My teacher read Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn to us when we were in 4th grade. I have an original copy of Huck Finn...hope no one is coming to our doors!

  5. That's exactly it, Maureen. There are many books I don't have any desire to read. Should we then go in and "sanitize" the author's work because we don't agree? The stuff would still be out there, just "nicer" so as not to offend. Wonder how long it will take for people to lobby for the changing of the Bible because the wording as it is now is offensive (to some).


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