Huckleberry Finn doesn’t need an ‘update’

Alternate headline: “You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable when you can edit out things that make you uncomfortable.”

NPR reports that a new version of Huckleberry Finn will be published in February conspicuously lacking “the N-word.”

According to the article, the publisher wants a version that will be more accessible to general readers and not as likely to get banned. So, the publisher’s brilliant solution to Huck Finn being banned is to … remove the parts that keep getting it banned.

But lest you think this is some attempt to play down the race issues in the book:

One of the scholars, Alan Gribben of Auburn University, tells PW that “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.”

Well, no, not really. It’s a matter of how Mark Twain expressed that in 1884. Books, especially books written in specific time periods and addressing topical issues, become meaningless if updated to reflect current social mores.

Huckleberry Finn was banned in the 19th century for being too progressive on race issues, and it’s banned now for being too regressive. It’s always been a challenging book. It does not sit well or mellow with age or become dusty and abstract in the mind of the American reader. That’s what makes it great and worth reading more than 100 years later.

Bowdlerizing Huckleberry Finn is not only demeaning to one of the greatest American novels, but also demeaning to the readers for which the new edition is intended.

When I was a senior in high school, my English teacher* assigned us Huckleberry Finn. Before we started reading, there was a long discussion about the book, its historical context and its use of racial slurs. When she read portions to us out loud, she said “Slave Jim,” but she insisted that the book, including the stuff that is now so distressing to our ears, was still important to understand.

At worst, removing that language is an act of cowardice, an admission that we are not willing to wrestle with the book and the questions it raises in favor of remaining “comfortable.” At best, it’s laziness, indicative of teachers who either don’t believe enough in their students to challenge them or don’t want to take the time.

Over at Salon, Elon James White has some similar thoughts:

This isn’t a case of political correctness. This is a case of being racially uncomfortable.  The idea that the book would be used if it didn’t contain the word “nigger” is preposterous. The book, which deals directly with racism, is not better served by erasing the racial slur. The only purpose is to ease the tension that is felt by parents and teachers of students who would read it. To pretend this is for some higher good is to insult the intelligence of the American public. America is a society in which our ugly history is not so far gone as to allow for cold, detached analysis. Because of the mistreatment of everyone who wasn’t/isn’t white, straight and male, America is constantly defending itself instead of dealing head-on with the wrongs that it willingly played a role in.

* This same teacher was later excoriated by the local PTA and nearly fired for assigning books like Ricochet River, which were deemed “too adult” for high school students.


2 Responses to “Huckleberry Finn doesn’t need an ‘update’”

  1. 1 Vincent
    January 4, 2011 at 7:14 pm

    They had to get rid of “Tovarish Jim” so no loyal communists got offended at the sight of Comrade Stalin standing side by side with an enemy of the people. In Soviet Russia, book writes you.

    “Progressive” censors aren’t “progressive.” They’re just censors.

  2. 2 Vincent
    January 4, 2011 at 7:25 pm


    “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. Unless that word is ‘nigger.’ Then we have to make sure no one ever hears or sees it again, for any reason.”

    Kind of loses the rhyme, though.

    And remember how some folks made such a huge deal out of this? Expunging every instance of a word from a classic work of literature somehow seems worse.

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