Huck Finn

The classic book, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is no stranger to controversy. The latest incident involves an edition that replaces the “n-word” with “slave”, presumably to sanitize the book.

While it might seem intuitively wrong to make such a change, there are some reasons that can be used to justify this change.

First, the n-word is regarded by many as offensive to a degree that warrants its removal from art. Of course, it might be argued that the n-word is still dropped with great regularity. However, it could be replied that since Twain was a white man, he should not have used this word (or should not use it were he writing today) and hence the search and replace is correct. It could also be argued that no one should use the word and hence it is acceptable to remove it from works, regardless of the skin color of  the person using it.

Second, this book is one of the most banned books in America, presumably because of the n-word. The book is, however, an important work of literature. By replacing the offending word, this sanitized version of the book should be somewhat more appealing to squeamish school boards. As such, this could provide a compromise situation. Students would be able to read a book very much like the one Twain wrote. Those concerned with protecting the youth from the word could be satisfied with this alteration.

However, there are some very good reasons as to why the book should not be changed.

First, there is the obvious matter of freedom of expression. Changing the word is, in effect, a form of censorship. If artists have a right to this freedom of expression, then this sort of censorship would seem to be unacceptable.

Naturally, it can be argued that the right of the artist is outweighed by the offensive nature of the word. There are, of course, always good reasons to restrict freedom of expression so as to protect people from harm (the yelling of “fire” being the stock example). The question is, of course, whether the alleged harms of leaving the word  in the book exceed the right of the artist (even though he is dead).

It could be pointed out that the modified edition is but one edition, thus allowing readers to chose which version they read. As such, the artist’s freedom of expression remains intact and the freedom of choice for the readers is expanded. This seems to be a point worth considering.

Second, there is the concern that such a change violates the artistic integrity of the work. It could be seen as being on par with someone putting shorts on David because the nakedness of the statue offends him.  The word that is being replaced could be regarded as a integral part of the work and the change could thus be seen as damaging the artistic integrity of the book.

Tied into this is also the matter of historical integrity. Modifying past works, be they artistic or otherwise, because people find some of the content offensive, seems to be rather problematic. One of the main problems is that this sort of approach seems to embrace what might be regarded as a type of dishonesty-a willingness to change things so as to avoid what offends.

Third, the publishers of the modified version are, of course, selling the book as being by Mark Twain. However, this modification means that the product is not truly just Twain’s work anymore. As such, it would be incorrect to present it as being the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Rather, it should be the Modified Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, based on the Original Version by Mark Twain.

This does seem to be a reasonable matter of concern.

Overall, it seems that the work should not be altered in this manner.

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  1. Tweets that mention Talking Philosophy | Huck Finn -- - pingback on January 7, 2011 at 10:03 pm
  2. To me, the pivotal question is whether we ever gain more than accidental benefit from treating reality, past or present, as other than it is.

    The answer must be “no”; otherwise, we lose the basis for valuing truth over falsity.

    If the story of Huck Finn is made less real by these changes — and I think it is — then it is rendered less valuable to us as well.

  3. Samuel L. Clemens

    “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter — ’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”*

    “when a Library expels a book of mine and leaves an unexpurgated Bible lying around where unprotected youth and age can get hold of it, the deep unconscious irony of it delights me” **

    * attributed in George Bainton, The Art of Authorship, pp. 87–88 (1890).

    ** from a letter to a Mrs. Whitmore in Feb. 7, 1907, The Letters Of Mark Twain, Volume 6,
    1907-1910 (available online as a Project Gutenberg EBook)

  4. It seems to me that one of things about great, classic literature is that it allows us to see through a window into a time and place that is removed from us. By altering a piece of art to reflect the current morality in this way seems to remove what makes it an important piece of work to begin with.

  5. I find the idea of changing the text of a classic to be ridiculous.

    First of all, good prose has a reason and a rhythm. Every word counts.

    How about eliminating all the sexist words in Henry Miller?
    That would make for great reading.

    Then we could prune T.S. Eliot of all antisemitic comments. Surely, thus censured, his poetry would read better.

  6. That Guy Montag

    I was recently introduced to an essay by Jonathan Bennett about Huck Finn that highlights how a strong part of the way Twain frames the debate is designed literally to show how the dictates of moral principles and fellow feeling can conflict. You’re not going to get that effect or at least it’s hard to see it having the same strength without using strongly emotive language. I’d say that this is far more important than say something like allowing a window onto history. It’s a classic trope that what makes great literature is how it speaks across the ages and it seems to me there’s at least something right there.

    On the other hand I’m reminded of Umberto Eco’s comments on being translated. His argument was along the lines of it’s not the word, it’s the effect. I’m told for instance trying to translate “it’s raining cats and dogs” into another language is a parlous endeavor so if you’re going to it’s probably better to find the local form. It’s also not uncommon to see this kind of thinking in Philosophy of Language with some at least suggesting translation is a good model for grasping meaning within a language, let alone between languages.

    So, if we’re all agreed it’s vandalism, and I do think it’s vandalism, maybe we can agree that it’s purely aesthetic? And if it’s purely aesthetic maybe we can let it slide for the very important argument to be heard?

    But then I’m back to the idea that when we’re talking morals, we often shouldn’t talk abstract ideals but rather emotional affect and it can only be dangerous to strip moral questions of that.

    The other wrinkle is our commenter channeling the ghost of Twain himself showing that it’s likely at least that he would object. But then what about Nabokov? Or Kafka? Should writers always be the executors of their own legacy, or are some works too important for human society?

    Damn it, no answers, only questions here.

  7. I am outraged that anyone would consider doing such a thing as modifying Twain’s work for the sake of political correctness or sentimentality. Twain was one of the greatest American writers and his novels should be national treasures. Whoever is behind this deserves to be fired and extradited. I wonder if other countries treat the written word so poorly and cheaply, but I would assume not.

  8. Fired Joshnua? Given the comments made to his friend William Dean Howells* regarding typesetters who dared ‘correct’ punctuation in ‘Connecticut Yankee’, Twain, it seems, would telegraph Auburn University at Montgomery and New South Books to order that Professor Alan Gribben be “shot without giving him time to pray”.

    * see Robert H Hirst’s ‘Note On Text’ in the 1983 Bernard L. Stein edition of “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s court”.

  9. My problem here is that I really do not know if I can mention this word here or not. Would I be banned from the site wonder. I have written far more offensive words here in the past, and so have others. Who is going to complain or be offended anyway? I would hazard a guess that in the main those complaining are quite likely to be, single issue political correct pseudo do-gooder fanatics, who bedevil us these days with their nonsense.
    What is offensive is not the mere mention of the word itself, but in real life, not in a story book, directing it at a person, with the intent of insulting him or her. But there are many other words like that, Fs Bs Cs Ps etc which when directed at anyone other than an understanding friend, can be considered as insulting.
    To bowdlerise anything of literary worth or to make alterations is to my mind an abomination, something akin to rewriting history (cf “1984”), to make it more palatable or convenient for some reason. We could end up with a fairy tale history.
    I friend of mine recently told me that Joseph Conrad’s novel can now be obtained titled “The Slave of the Narcissus”. Not the first time that title has been tampered with. A bowdlerised edition was issued in 2009 by WordBridge Publishing under the title The N-word of the Narcissus in an effort “to remove this offence to modern sensibilities”: in this version, all occurrences of the word “nigger” throughout the text have been replaced by “n-word” cf Wikipedia.
    To me this verges on the F-wording ridiculous.
    If you don’t like the word, then don’t read the book.

  10. Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’ was censored by editors within Ballantine Books without the author’s knowledge. In that case foul terms such as “damn” and “hell” were removed from (a never authorised) ‘for schools’ edition and then later the publishers started passing off this sanitised version as Bradbury’s work to the general population.

    “Students, reading the novel which, after all, deals with the censorship and book-burning in the future, wrote to tell me of this exquisite irony” wrote Bradbury in the Coda to 451 (which was written in response to the discovery). Bradbury, at least was able to get this vandalism undone for future readers but as he wrote in that same Coda:

    “There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.”

  11. What seems like a paradox to me is that they are talking so much about the controversial word that the only result they will achieve will be its increased popularity and the situation in the class will be the same even after the word has been changed to slave.

  12. The arguments over the correct approach to presenting a text and its usage must illustrate more than the words themselves; The editing actions suggest to me that there are people around who have still not reconciled for themselves parts of the history of the USA. That appears a crux issue in any defence of the historical correctness of a text even where is not recognised for what it is.

    Thinking along associated threads it would seem there is potential for more than one set of politics being involved.

  13. If we take “nigger” out of Huck Finn then it is a book looking back to the society Clemens knew some forty years before. By leaving it in, we have a satire of post Civil War society whose attitudes Huck resolves to leave behind ( by heading west in the time of the story). Certainly, Twain has Jim a slave: but he also has him a nigger, which had been necessary to his being a slave because of the notions of inferiority which it carried.

    Funnily, my first reaction on reading Huck was not to be troubled by the word “nigger”, but by the portrayal of Jim as a “black-and-white minstrel” character. Again, the moral content of the story only holds together if we see Jim through Huck’s eyes.

    I am concerned about messing with Clemens’ prose but not nearly as much as I’m troubled by pulling the emancipatory and humanitarian guts out of his story.

  14. At first sight this seems to be a reasonable idea, since we went a long way in emancipation and civil rights since the times this book has been written. To the modern reader the use of the n-word might even suggest that the author of this work had been a rabid racist whose entire work should be banned. At least in America there is a fair chance for such a reaction.

    But the idea is retarded. Anyone intelligent enough to read this book is aware that it was written a long time ago when words had another effect, even another meaning. Otherwise we might change the word gay in 19th century novels to avoid the impression everyone was homosexual in those days.

    Thinking along these lines might lead to the decision that Shakespeare’s Shylock should be edited so it is no longer a vehicle of anti-Semitic stereotypes. Rudyard Kipling’s writing is full of chauvinistic ideology. Think of “The white man’s burden”.

    A past stripped of its errors contains nothing to learn from and serves only to solidify the present state. When we have recrafted all memory to our own standards we might find that there is no future to expect and form. Literature is a heritage that we should not tamper with; it is part of the memory of mankind. There might be butterfly effects lurking in the smallest of forges.

  15. If you’re offended by the word “nigger” regardless of it’s context, but not offended by it’s replacement, the “n-word”, or anything else intended to replace it, you’re brain just isn’t working correctly.

    The only reason words work at all is because they represent ideas. They have no power in and of themselves. The only reason “nigger” is such a hot word is because of the ideas of oppression and racism and hate that it’s linked to. You have to at least have a passing notion of those things to let the word bother you in the first place.

    So, if replacing the word “nigger” with “slave” or “n-word” leaves you less offended, you’re manipulated way too easily, not with ideas, but with sounds and letters alone. Think for yourself.

    Some ideas are bad…horrible, even. But words CAN NOT BE.

  16. Um, it’s been a few hours since I posted, and upon reflection it looks much more like a rant than a reasonable post on a philosophy blog. So, I’m sorry.

    But I really, really don’t understand how/why people confuse words with the ideas they represent. It doesn’t seem to me that a stop sign is the same thing as the act of stopping, and the word “nigger” is not the same thing as racism. These things are surely often times linked, but not necessarily so, and not all the time.

    It seems like people getting worked up over words, regardless of the context, is like people thinking they can quench their thirst just by hearing people pronounce the word “water.” Where is my philosophical train derailing here, because I’ve run into quite a few seemingly intelligent people who insist that some words are just profane, but can point to no better reason than the fact that a lot of other people agree with them, or worse, just told them it was the case.

  17. By the time he wrote ‘Huckleberry Finn’, Twain understood ‘nigger’ to be a racial slur. He stopped using the term in print without quotation marks from 1867 onwards, replacing it, consistently, with the (then) non-derogatory term ‘negro’. The exception being, of course, Huckleberry Finn, where it is not Twain who is the narrator but a young boy who has (as Montag correctly notes) been indoctrinated by a bad morality which sits at odds with his natural ‘fellow feeling’. This is not to say that Twain ever fully ‘reconstructed’ himself from the young man who grew up in the church-sanctioned bigotry of a slave-owning state (as Karebaria rightly points out Jim’s ‘stereotype’ antics do – and should – jar with modern sensibiilities). This is only to say that “nigger” is the knowingly derogatory word he quite deliberately (and realistically) puts in the mouths of his racist characters. And he chose his words carefully.

    My take on current events, for what little it is worth, is, I think, a charitable one. I take Professor Gribben to be well intentioned and I trust he will have the integrity to ensure that his ‘for schools’ edition is clearly identified for what it is. Given his high estimation of the historic, moral and artistic value of Twain’s classic he wants Huckleberry Finn to be a set text. He knows the ‘can’t-upset-anybody’ culture that is increasingly restraining US teachers and school boards prevents this. He recognises that cutting the n-word from the book is obviously contrary to the author’s wishes and that this will also be detrimental to the text’s aesthetic value, historical realism and moral ‘punch’. However he thinks having this inferior version become compulsory reading for US children is preferable to the (not unrealistic) scenario of him seeing nothing of Twain’s classic taught in US schools again.

    Rather than see Huck sleep on a school shelf just yet Gribben is willing to inflict the first few hundred little cigarette burns needed to keep him telling his tale to the kids a while yet. And when Jim’s ‘black and white minstrel’ antics look they’ll send Huck back to sleep, well, some other well-meaning academic can send him marching back into the classroom, a little singed but still vaguely recognisable…

  18. * see Mark Twain and the Negro, 1867-1869 Arthur G. Pettit
    The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 56, No. 2. (Apr., 1971), pp. 88-96.

    … yeh, I felt like a rant too

  19. Interesting how the goals of everybody directly involved can be so effectively negated by something being made acceptable to all those involved.

  20. Thinking about this problem has caused me to consider the ongoing extinction of the Gollywog. My old friend now sits in my room. Nobody visits him, he cannot safely appear in public and is forbidden to look out of a window. What a terrible fate for what used to be fun loving harmless child’s toy.

  21. Don,

    We should agree there is a distinction between a child’s toy and a book and that the learning processes of reading a book in an educational environment and playing with a toy in a more unstructured environment can be completely different. As usual the correct interpretation of context and intent are important across environments.

    To clarify my earlier comments; the inherent difficulties created by the replacement of the words nigger or negro by slave do not appear to me as a soundly based argument to assure the availability of HF for future generations in an educational environment but rather as a safe middle ground allowing a set of protagonists to finally make peace at the expense of the understanding of future generations. Many of the justifications provided say that.

    The writings identify the distastefulness of the words nigger and negro by their association with the word slave. Hence whilst using slave allows some current sensibilities to be assuaged, from my perspective, it removes that importantly negative association from the writing for readers of an edited text. I am white, so I can only imagine the distaste I felt when reading being amplified in people of different origins, making the early stages of reading the book more difficult, but the book as a whole no less valuable in the understanding it eventually creates in many areas.

    From such a perspective a view becomes visible that there is a very clear danger for understanding of racial prejudice and its consequences to become diluted, or lost to future generations, if classical texts illustrating and facilitating understanding are edited to reflect current sensibilities. In becoming acceptable to all, the opposite to the intention of all is achieved, which results in my first comment that some people have not yet fully reconciled the history of the USA; Because the sometimes painful distasteful elements are being diluted in this way, irrespective of the reasons provided.

    A wider reflection which then includes some of the accounts of slavery from classical times that deliberately do not distinguish between the origin of slaves, creates a thread of thought along the lines of; Is this type of process a normal one in circumstances where a more integrated society is trying to reconcile itself with its past. As such things become even more interesting from my perspective as a privacy researcher. Do societies accidentally by deliberate action create situations where their past is capable of being forgotten over time (made private to a select few who may properly understand) even when the item which will be forgotten appears to be an important and cohesive part of their culture which everyone agrees needs to be remembered. Another social facet to look into…

    Apologies if this response generated by your comment is based on an incorrect interpretation.

  22. For those of us who prefer easier reading, there’s this:

  23. Re Ian 12th
    I agree that there is a difference between The use of the word Nigger, that is to say how it is applied and the existence of a Gollywog and shall we say, how it is used. Both could be used in an offensive way. If we call a black person a Nigger it means we have little regard for that person who might feel much the same as you would feel, if when writing here, I called you a Bastard, you would be none too pleased. I do appreciate that Nigger in addition has long historical connotations which was an abomination. So far as the Gollywog is concerned yes if for the purposes of derision one were to present it to a black person and suggest they both looked similar, which I hasten to add they do not, then that could be seen as offensive. So what I am trying to say here is that these words and objects are in themselves harmless, it is how they are applied. A gun is harmless unless some assassin aims it at and kills someone but we do not ban the word gun from books and the spoken word nor the possession of such items.
    You said in an earlier posting. “The editing actions suggest to me that there are people around who have still not reconciled for themselves parts of the history of the USA.” I tend to agree with this, and my gut feeling is that the greater part of Racial political correctness is the product of white people who often for some unknown reason or another venture into the realms of stupid thoughtless overkill. I do not know if any Black people have written on this blog it would be instructive to have their opinions on this matter.
    It is this thoughtless overkill which bothers me it so often exacerbates the situation. A while ago in UK Children at some nursery schools were taught to sing “Baa Baa rainbow sheep” rather than the correct version Baa Baa black sheep” In case any black children there were offended. Some while ago I attended classes in German. There was a young Black lady there always immaculately dressed intelligent and held a responsible professional position. One day she was absent, somebody asked where is “P”? Someone else said who is “P”? Various descriptions of “P2 were given and the person could still not place her, a certain unease was developing. Ever the observer I remained silent, although I was bursting to say, “She is the Black Lady for goodness sake why are you denying someone their racial in inheritance there is no shame in it?” So far as I remember the situation remained unresolved and the feeling of unease gradually subsided. I have several other anecdotes of this nature but this is not really the place for too much anecdotal evidence. I do await someone coming up with the idea that the word Gas must not be mentioned in the presence of Germans. You must not say my gas bill has gone up it must be referred to as my fuel bill.
    This reply probably lacks insight and intellectual rigour but it expresses my concern as to how racial differences are so often dealt with in a clumsy and unhelpful way. Had the the word Nigger been left alone what would have happened? Nothing. I suspect the change to Slave was made to draw attention to the book and thereby more copies would sell; there is something not quite wholesome there I think. Twain once remarked to his editor, “Apparently, the Concord library has condemned Huck as ‘trash and only suitable for the slums.’ This will sell us another five thousand copies for sure!” cf Wikipedia.

  24. If I may correct myself somewhat…

    I spoke earlier of ‘the (then) non-derogatory’ term ‘negro’, I should have said ‘the (then) unobjectionable term’.

    More significantly, having read the excerpt from the editor’s introduction to “Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: The NewSouth Edition” (as available online), I would revise some of what I previously assumed.

    The NewSouth edition does NOT identify itself as a ‘for schools’ edition. Whilst Gribbens states that it ‘is emphatically NOT intended for academic scholars’ (this needs saying?), he does think it may be a ‘welcome alternative’ for college instructors and general readers alike.

    He also notes that ‘even at the level of graduate school’ students can resent ‘textual encounters’ with the ‘racial appellative’ in question and says that in nearly forty years of leading college classes ‘in detailed discussions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn’ he has never felt able to read the N-word out loud.

    I find this rather depressing reading:

  25. Don at 23.

    It seems my post evoked similar emotions within you that yours did in me. Such are the confusions of life.

    Using the little I know from the previous posts you have made on this thread there was no intention to elucidate an emotional response regarding colour prejudice, as it was clear that you harboured none.

    I disagree with the observation that racial political correctness is the product of white people. It appears more as a product of all, including elements of sensitivity to words pronounced and either contextually misinterpreted or misrepresented. The ongoing debates then create a politically correct atmosphere and lead to the situations which by their existence cause a heightening of tension. In my view it is better to understand, but I do perceive the need for sensitivity, something I myself frequently lack because of insufficient knowledge as illustrated by our discussion. Which raises the question how should a perceived lack of knowledge be sensitively dealt with.

    Understanding your much loved gollywog created a rapport in me as my children each had golliwog soft toys when they were young (made by my wife who stopped making them for friends because of pc pressure), which they both still have and love as adults (I hope remembering a happy childhood). Understanding other interpretations which could be applied to your comment generated my response and my final sentence indicating interpretation was a recognized element. I am pleased your response has clarified the 20 entry was not covertly supportive of alterations to HF. Looking only at the word Golly and I recall at one stage that was thought to be derogatory, but seems now to have assumed its original form in many areas as indicative of surprise.

    Yes it would be helpful and instructive to have opinions from black people in this blog item.

    On your german comment; unfortunately in this crazy world levels of sensitivity appear to be frequently applied out of context, which in my opinion reveals more of a lack of knowledge within a group to individual sensitivities than any actual situation; Political correctness at its best, do not talk about something because it may offend—Do not try and increase your knowledge for fear of becoming embroiled in a power struggle over the interpretation of words and their context. The gas/fuel bill argument in its plain context seems remote for me as utilities are frequently billed together.

    It could well be that marketing hype has taken over academic rigour, something many of my blog contributions could lack. Having in December downloaded an on-line electronic version from Project Gutenberg (containing I hope original writing), of Huckleberry Finn to read again at some point it does seem amusing that sensitivities should provide such an amusing example of how a culture can deny a clear understanding to its future generations of how its identity was formed; a situation potentially validated by the actions of early civilizations. I do now recall my first attempt at reading HF at a young age failed due to the disgust and distaste created. Trying again when slightly older an appreciation of what was happening and the book was saying arose and the reading was completed; so I also perceive a level of maturity affecting understanding.

    Thank your for the brief discussion, which seems for the purposes of my research, from the information available, to have run its course.

  26. N.B. to entry 13 Jan at 0706 a.m.

    Having considered the entry by notinavat on Jan 13 at 0.33 AM and my own uncertainty of what Gribbens college graduate age would be I feel it helpful to observe that my comments on reading HF at a young age cover the period something like 8 years to 12 years old. I had certainly fully read the book by 12 years old with both the attempted and full reading being conducted in an unstructured and undirected environment sometime during that period.

  27. Ian,

    A College student (in the US) is undertaking an undergraduate degree, and Graduate School is where an American does a PHD or a Masters.

  28. Ian

    “The gas/fuel bill argument in its plain context seems remote for me as utilities are frequently billed together.”
    My intention here was that gas was used Nazi Concentration camps during WW2. If it has not already been done, I will not be in the least surprised If some idiot suddenly comes up with the idea that the word Gas should under no circumstances be uttered in the presence of Germans in case it offends them.

    The HTML download from Gutenberg does appear to be unexpurgated. The ‘terrible word’ appears 29 times in Part 1.
    I will shut up now.

  29. notinavat,

    Thank you. As suspected following your post, that would explain where some differences in understanding are arising and allows for some clarity about my comment ‘a level of maturity’.


    Not so far, but it is unlawful to sell Nazi memorabilia. (What books that includes is unknown to me).
    Comments which are viewed as not being pc are ‘do not mention the war’ which seemed to be well illustrated without any words.

    Yes, the same generic difficulties exist everywhere so I will shut up to, as we seem to have reached sufficient understanding of each other on this subject.

  30. I presume then that the so-called “n” word will be deleted from Barak Obama’s book “Dreams From My Father” as well. Mark Twain has a lot in common with this author, including that he was using the word to show that someone was using the term to classify someone, plus, they both are not the real birth name of the author.

  31. ronald mcdonald

    😛 😡 😎 😯 😳 👿 😎 😎 😎 😎 😎

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