Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Literary Vandalism

Mark Twain seems to be everywhere these days. The publication of his autobiography last year to mark the 100th anniversary of his death garnered many headlines. Recently, however, the great American author has been making news for entirely different reasons. Or rather, one of his most famous creations has.

A few days ago, it was announced that a small US-based publishing house called NewSouth Books is preparing to bring out an edition of Twain’s classic novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with some notable changes. Any reference to the word “nigger” is to be replaced by “slave”, and (inexplicably) “injun” is to be erased in favour of “Indian”.

The man who originally advocated these changes is Alan Gribben, an English professor at the University of Alabama and a noted Twain scholar. That any person associated with teaching English literature would call for changes such as these is quite unbelievable, and by a man purporting to be a Twain scholar is unconscionable.

Gribben’s rationale for expurgating Huck Finn is his belief that today’s readers have become uncomfortable reading words with such negative connotations. He argues that teachers increasingly find it difficult to explain the context of such words to their students, and teenagers are confused when confronted with them. He believes the language of Huck Finn is the reason why the novel has dropped off curriculum lists all over America.

In today’s society, there is no question that the word “nigger” is objectionable and highly offensive. The word, with all it’s associations with slavery, racism and segregation, has become a toxic throwback to America’s ugly past. But is this a reason to expunge the word entirely from the classics of American literature? (Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has also come under heavy criticism for the use of the n-word). Surely not! If anything, these novels, in their original form, serve to highlight how far America has come since the awful years of slavery and segregation. These books provide a snapshot of American life in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and should be preserved - sanitising them only serves to dilute their message.

And as for Gribben's assertion that the non-inclusion of these novels on national curriculums is a direct result of the offensive language contained there-in, I would argue that it is better for the book to be read in it's true form by a few, than a censored version to be read by the masses.


  1. I agree - better to read as it is and be reviled by the awful racism there was rather than airbrush it out of history

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  3. I've just finished re-reading both Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Huck, in particular, is a very different novel when read in adulthood (I first read it for Junior Cert English). It's a much more nuanced novel than I had originally given it credit for. Twain very cleverly highlights the raging injustices of that time through the simple narrative of a young boy, who is still retains some innocence of youth ...