Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn and Slave Jim: sense or censorship?

January 6th, 2011 by Staff

When I read Christopher Howse’s lovely piece on the Bowdlerisation of Huckleberry Finn (”Huckleberry Finn loses the ‘nigger’ he loves, thanks to a publisher’s ethnic cleansing“) I was appalled. Obviously it’s wrong to remove the word “nigger” and thus the impact of the story. I nearly allowed myself to utter the dread words “it’s political correctness gone mad”. It’s a desecration of a wonderful piece of literature, I thought.
Now I’m not so sure.
I read a comment, by “Chris”, underneath another piece on the subject, at Shelf Life. I can’t put it any better myself, so I’ll just quote it in full:
“I happen to know the editor of this edition [Alan Gribben]. He’s a world-renowned Twain scholar (search his name on Google books and see how many hits you get). He loves Twain and has devoted his academic life to the study of Twain. He does not favor censorship of Twain. This project resulted from visiting many small towns in Alabama, on a recent speaking tour, and being told by teacher after teacher after teacher that these teachers loved Twain but could not teach Twain because the book was considered so painful by so many readers — simply because of one word. Like it or not, that is the situation in many schools today.
“Of course, anyone who knows the book well will know that it condemns slavery and that Jim, in many ways, is the real hero of the novel. Gribben’s edition is merely an effort to make sure that more people have the chance to read the novel. Once they read it, many of them will get “hooked” and will want to read the real thing. The edition will have a lengthy preface explaining the nature of the edition and how the edition came to be. No one will ever be able to mistake it for the “original” edition.
“Ironically, anyone who reads Gribben’s edition will know that the word “slave” is replacing the “n” word, and so the irony and impact of the book will not be entirely lost — not at all. The book will stimulate more discussion and study of Twain, which is always a good thing. I urge anyone who is troubled by censorship (as all intelligent people should be) to wait until the edition appears before passing judgment on it. By the way, the edition pictured by EW is NOT Gribben’s edition, which will make its intentions quite clear and explicit. Gribben is a good man who loves Twain and wants more people to have the chance to fall in love with Twain themselves.”
So, it seems, it’s not an attempt to prevent children from reading the word “nigger” – it’s an attempt to get people to read the books in the first place. Mr Gribben says: “After a number of talks, I was sought out by local teachers, and to a person they said we would love to teach this novel, and Huckleberry Finn, but we feel we can’t do it anymore. In the new classroom, it’s really not acceptable.” So this might lead to more children reading Twain. If so, that’s a good thing. Maybe it’s misguided, I don’t know, but let’s wait for it to come out in February before we get our pitchforks out.

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