Censoring Mark Twain
The Takeaway discusses the significance of removing the "n word" from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
This story was originally covered by PRI's The Takeaway. For more, listen to the audio above.
"A famous Clemens/Twain quote goes, 'the difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug,'" writes Baruch DovBer on The Takeaway's Facebook page. DovBer is responding to a new edition of the 1885 novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, scheduled for release in February. In this version, the "n word," which appears in the novel 219 times, has been replaced with the word "slave." DovBer continues, "The new 'Huck' looks like a lightning-bug moment to me."
Although the intention of the edits was to make the book "classroom friendly," some feel that the substitutions will weaken the book's message. Bob Hirst, General Editor of the Mark Twain Project at the University of California, Berkeley, is concerned about times when Twain uses the word to show that a character is racist. "I think the real problem is that when you need the meaning of the 'n word,' it's not going to be there. When Pap Finn starts his tirade against the Black professor who knows languages and actually can vote in his home state, if you don't have the n word there, you're not going to get the point."
Another problem with substituting the word "slave" is that it is not true to the storyline. "Of all the commentary I have heard for the past several days I have not heard anyone state that Jim was simply not a slave," writes The Takeaway listener, Charley Miller. "He was a free man and to change this context is not only censorship, but historically inaccurate."
There were alternative, and more socially acceptable words the author could have chosen to use; Hirst asserts, it was Twain's intention to shock his readers. The book was written to reflect the true speech and the social problems of the time. "I think it's clear that Mark Twain wants you to be disturbed by this word," Hirst explains. "I mean, there's plenty of evidence that he was not comfortable using it in his own voice."
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