Killing the ‘N-word:’ Let’s make Huck Finn safe for the 21st century
Some well-meaning nincompoops, you may have heard, are set on rescuing Mark Twain from himself. They’ve excized the “N-word” from a new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, thereby making America’s greatest novel safe for the tender sensibilities of 21st century readers.
You might have thought Twain needed no help. After all, Hemingway famously (if somewhat self-servingly) said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” Poet T.S. Eliot, a better critic than Hemingway, and less in the direct Twainian line of literary descent, termed the novel “a masterpiece.”
Yet Twain scholar Alan Gribben of Auburn University and an outfit called NewSouth Books have decided Huck needs some tweaking. In an upcoming edition that also includes The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Gribben takes out each and every one of the 219 instances in which Twain used the “N-word,” replacing them with the word “slave.”
While I sympathize with Gribben’s impulse — he wants to enlarge the contemporary audience for the book, and to make it palatable for young African-American readers — it’s so wrong-headed I’d like to reach for a fly-swatter and swat the professor a good one.
I can’t wait to see the risible results of Gribben’s tender mercies. After all, Huck’s companion (and the only heroic adult of any color in the entire novel) is called “Nigger Jim” throughout the book. Is he now to become “Slave Jim?” The path that leads to anachronistic grotesqueries is ill advised at best.
It should be noted that Gribben is not the first to take a hatchet to a classic literary work with the best of intentions, and I have to acknowledge it has not always turned out badly. Thomas Bowdler smoothed the rough bits out of Shakespeare for the benefit of 18th-century families, lending his name to the general practice.
“Bowdlerize” is almost always a negative term today, yet the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne praised his efforts: “No man ever did better service to Shakespeare than the man who made it possible to put him into the hands of intelligent and imaginative children.”
And there’s the case of Roald Dahl’s modern children’s classic Charley and the Chocolate Factory, which was roundy criticized as racist for its original portrayal of the Oompa-Loompas as African pygmies. In subsequent editions, the Oompa-Loompas became white-skinned dwarves with brown hair.
However, the alterations to Charley and the Chocolate Factory were made by the author himself. “I saw them as charming creatures, whereas the white kids in the books were most unpleasant,” Dahl said later. “It didn’t occur to me that my depiction of the Oompa-Loompas was racist, but it did occur to the NAACP and others. After listening to the criticisms, I found myself sympathizing with them, which is why I revised the book.”
Needless to say, Twain isn’t around to consider improvements to Huckleberry Finn. What’s more, the racial aspect of Dahl’s book is trivial to the themes and story. In Huckleberry Finn, however, race is the theme. Twain’s story is about the pervasively corrupting effect of slavery and racism on the white American character.
To remove the “N-word” from the book is not only to assault literature, it is to, pardon the phrase, whitewash the past. Sure, we all know slavery was bad, mmmkay?, but we only know how bad by reading novels, like Huck Finn, that accurately portray what it was like for people living in the time. It seems impossible anyone who has actually read the book could find it or its author racist.
Consider: The single greatest scene in American literature is the one in which Huck — thoroughly socialized by racism, white supremacy and perverted religious ideas — wrestles with his conscience and decides he would rather go to Hell than betray his friend, the runaway slave Jim. Note: It’s his conscience urging him to do the “right thing” by turning Jim into the authorities.
Eliminate the “N-word,” however, and the power of that passage, the courage of the boy Huck in reaching his decision, is blunted. Huck’s racism becomes less a deeply internalized social evil than a personal flaw. History is made a little tamer, and that makes the future a little more dangerous.
I’m also not convinced by Gribben’s sob-sister argument that young black readers find the book unbearable because of the relentless repetition of the “N-word.” Maybe not every great book is suitable for every age. Perhaps in a generation or two the hatefulness of the term will have become a memory, and readers can return to Twain’s masterpiece without feeling personally bruised by it.
In the meanwhile, though, these tender-hearted youngsters seem to have no problem with endless repetition of the offending word in contemporary rap music. Yes, yes, I know that people in the targeted group use the word differently than outsiders, as Richard Pryor taught Johnny Carson in a memorable “Tonight Show” appearance.
But white kids like rap, too, and can’t help singing along. Is it really wise to put the “N-word” into the mouths of suburban white youth? I think this is far more problematic than Twain’s use of the word in Huckleberry Finn. Twain’s novel relegates the offending word to the past, where it belongs, uncomfortable though it might be.
Rappers who toss the word to their fans, black and white, propel it into the future. Let’s remember, Richard Pryor, who’s breakout album was entiteld “That Nigger’s Crazy” (1974), stopped using the “N-word” in his performance after a trip to Africa in 1979. Another lesson from the greatest comic of my generation.