Wednesday, January 5, 2011

What The Huck?

A revised version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is coming out, and it’s causing a stir in the publishing world.

Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a classic by most any measure—T.S. Eliot called it a masterpiece, and Ernest Hemingway pronounced it the source of “all modern American literature.” Yet, for decades, it has been disappearing from grade school curricula across the country, relegated to optional reading lists, or banned outright, appearing again and again on lists of the nation’s most challenged books, and all for its repeated use of a single, singularly offensive word: “nigger.”

Twain himself defined a “classic” as “a book which people praise and don’t read.” Rather than see Twain’s most important work succumb to that fate, Twain scholar Alan Gribben and NewSouth Books plan to release a version of Huckleberry Finn, in a single volume with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, that does away with the “n” word (as well as the “in” word, “Injun”) by replacing it with the word “slave.”

I’m not in favor of using racial slurs, but in context and in the situation of a work written over 100 years ago and told as seen through the eyes of a barely literate teenager in the 19th century, to make changes to a book that used them is an assault nearly as powerful as the offending word itself. It’s another way of trying to revise history in the same way the defenders of the Confederacy are doing by saying the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, it was about economics.

You do not educate by sugar-coating the past, and you certainly don’t do the younger readers of the book any favors or protect them by pretending the word wasn’t used. They need to know that part of our history, warts and all, and Huck Finn is one of the most honest depictions of American life that we have.