Huck Finn: An Alternate Take

When Alan Gribben, a Mark Twain scholar from Montgomery, decided to put out an edited version of Huck Finn minus the racial slurs, the blogosphere and the newsosphere went nuts. Bloggers, columnists, writers, academics–all jumped on the topic, most to condemn the idea. Phrases were thrown around; censorship, the PC police, and that old bogeyman of American letters; this will have a chilling effect on the freedom of expression.

“White people who went to college”, as my friend Tamara used to call us, were in agreement, as well as some black commentators–this was an unacceptable accommodation to changing racial sensitivities. A threat to the freedom of expression. An affront to the memory of our great American writer, to a classic book that had been harmlessly filled with the use of nasty racial slurs for over a hundred years, etc.

And yet…

I just can’t get that worked up about it. Here’s why:

  • Huck Finn is a public domain work. This means anyone can publish it. Don’t want to order the NewSouth Books edition or have your kid read the book without the racial slurs? Okay. Try any of these:

Library of America
Abridged CD read by Garrison Keillor
Prestwick Edition Google e-book

  • All of the millions of copies of the hundreds of editions aren’t going to disappear, 1984-style, and be replaced with this one. There are hundreds more on Amazon, including Kindle e-book versions, most of the classics publishers, and a manga version if you’re feeling adventurous.  And that abridged CD linked above?  Very common to cut huge swaths out of novels in order to make the CDs more affordable. Twain isn’t exactly around to approve the abridgements–those literary decisions are made by an editor.  Gribben even provides links and referrals to many of the other editions, including a library that holds holographs of Twain’s original handwritten manuscript. You can read Twain’s work in pure form, replete with racial slurs, scribbles, cross-outs and illegible sentences.  Isn’t the internet grand?
  • The book is clearly marked, on the back cover and in the prefaces, as being edited.  What was struck [“the n-word”] is named as well as what he replaced it with [“slave.”] (Also, “Injun Joe” was replaced by “Indian Joe”.) In the intro, Gribben explains that he wanted to put out an edition that made it possible for Twain’s work to be more readily available to schools without teachers having to overcome the difficulties inherent in confronting 19th century racial slurs that are no longer acceptable in casual public discourse.

Read Gribben’s intro here:

And this is a good point (from an article by Gribben in the Independent Publisher Online):

I had to laugh whenever the professional commentators avoided pronouncing or printing the very word they were mocking me for substituting and that they are expecting public school teachers to read aloud in integrated classrooms.

Doesn’t sound like he’s planning on overturning the First Amendment any time soon, or burning Twain in effigy.  Gribben strikes me as a person who wants balance in this discussion and who wants to find a way to present Twain’s books to schoolchildren without having to give tacit approval to the casual use of the n-word.  He’s not trying to take anything away from Twain’s brilliance or from those who want to access Huck Finn in its original form.

So don’t worry. You can still buy the book in its unexpurgated form and read the n-word 219 times, if you want.  We’re all still free to object to the single edition being censored. You can refuse to let your kid read this version, should any schoolteacher risk the wrath of the anti-PC patrol and try to introduce it into the curriculum. You can buy a traditional version and read it yourself, which would be a first for a lot of the commentators who jumped on the topic. (I still haven’t read it–have you?)

That way, maybe everyone could calm down and enjoy Twain’s work and see that a single, more child-friendly version of a classic book is not actually the end of civilization as we know it.  Freedom of expression, unchilled.

Next up on Devlin’s blog:
If Jane Austen Brought Persuasion to Critique Group

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2 Responses to Huck Finn: An Alternate Take

  1. Marne Ann says:

    Good points. Personally, I don’t see a problem with making a novel more accessible in our ever pc-conscience schools. It’s a great story, but people do tend to get caught up in the language used and miss the grand tale. This way, they might just enjoy the story…
    And the fact that the original is available to those who want it, that Gribben’s version is just another version, should make the argument moot…
    Shouldn’t it?
    Anyway, great post!


  2. Chris Devlin says:

    Hey, Marne Ann, thanks for your thoughts. I don’t know, I find nothing ever makes an argument moot, no matter the topic. I mean, there’s a Flat Earth Society, and there are people out there who still argue the moon landings were staged. C’est la vie, I guess. That’s what makes for lively conversations. 😉


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