Mighty Red Pen

January 5, 2011

Editing Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn

Filed under: Word wars,Wordsworthy — mighty red pen @ 8:17 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Well, the InterWebs have been lighting up with the news that NewSouth Books plans to put out an edition of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn without the n-word or the word “Injun.” The n-word will apparently be replaced with the word “slave.”

Huck Finn has been the target of many a banned book campaign, but this approach seems altogether new to me, and altogether more sinister. If we start putting out sanitized versions of one book, why stop there? Why not create an entire library of Great Books Made More Palatable?

Of all the things I read today about this issue, here are a few of the notables:

“What he suggested,” said La Rosa, “was that there was a market for a book in which the n-word was switched out for something less hurtful, less controversial. We recognized that some people would say that this was censorship of a kind, but our feeling is that there are plenty of other books out there—all of them, in fact—that faithfully replicate the text, and that this was simply an option for those who were increasingly uncomfortable, as he put it, insisting students read a text which was so incredibly hurtful.”

My question is: There are gazillions of books out there. Teachers and schools choose all the time to omit books from their curriculum because it contains content they consider objectionable. Why isn’t it simply an option for schools that object to the content of Huck Finn to just not teach it?

  • Censoring Mark Twain’s ‘N-words’ is Unacceptable,” which points out in Twain’s own words, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
  • Three Ways Removing the N-Word Will Screw Up ‘Huck Finn,’” by Cord Jefferson, which I especially appreciate because it attempts to answer one of my biggest question out of this whole thing: Is it true that there is a useful and accurate correlation between the word slave and the n-word, such that no meaning is lost or misconstrued by this substitution? Are we certain that in every case where Twain used the n-word, the word slave could be equally applied?

Gribben asserts in his introduction, “The n-word possessed, then as now, demeaning implications more vile than almost any insult that can be applied to other racial groups. There is no equivalent slur in the English language.” I don’t know if I agree with that, and I’d be interested to hear if people out there think that this is true. I’d also be interested to know if anyone has come across any defense of Gribben’s decision as an editor to tinker with Twain’s works in this way.



  1. At the risk of exaggerating the situation, isn’t this a bit like publishing “newspeak” versions of old books, as they do in Nineteen Eighty-Four? While it is of course offensive to use the N-Word, the connotations are important to a modern understanding of the story. What next: Reservoir Dogs with “Flip” or “Duck” substituted for all of the F-Words?

    Comment by Steve — January 9, 2011 @ 6:09 pm | Reply

  2. This sort of echoes the arguement about reading the “amended” Constitution or the original. I’m not sure where I stand on that, but if publishers start removing the n-word, they are also removing an important context for most literature. Will they also do this to To Kill a Mockingbird? Will they take certain words out of Lady Chatterley’s Lover?

    Comment by Val Span — January 10, 2011 @ 8:29 pm | Reply

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