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Killing the ‘N-word:’ Let’s make Huck Finn safe for the 21st century

January 5, 2011

Richard Pryor: Like Mark Twain, a great American humorist.

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.




16 Comments leave one →
  1. January 5, 2011 1:20 pm

    I couldn’t believe this when I first heard about it. But then today I read that Gribben was partly motivated by his own squirrely-ness when he had to read the book outloud to students. Good grief. This man is a teacher, for god’s sake, and rather than approach this as an opportunity to instruct he decided to whimp out.

    I give up.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 5, 2011 3:45 pm

      Don’t give up, PJ! If you do, then twits like Gribben will have the field to themselves…

    • Christi Robinson permalink
      May 6, 2012 8:38 pm

      Did you happen to see the 20/20 segment (or was it 60 Minutes?) last year where this was broadcast? I played the clip for my 11th grade American Lit students, and we discussed the dangers of censoring information that makes us uncomfortable. Twain was satirizing his society, ridiculing the racist South, and if you take out the racism, his message is watered down. It is a crime to meddle with literature in this way. This is exactly the tomfoolery that Ray Bradbury was talking about in Fahrenheit 451, where Beatty explains the disappearance of books in that futuristic society. Not so far-fetched, heh? Next thing you know they’ll want to rewrite To Kill a Mockingbird, and then I’ll be banging down the door of some editor. How dare they.

  2. Lynn Demarest permalink
    January 5, 2011 1:51 pm

    Thank you for having this view, which I largely share, save for your support of the total banishment of the N-word, which is impossible and counterproductive.

    The word itself is not the problem. The problem is the idea the word is used to express, and in this case Huck Finn is innocent.

    “It seems impossible anyone who has actually read the book could find it or its author racist.”


    (Curious, though, how powerful a single word can be. Isn’t meaning in context more important than the ordered set of letters we call a word? Or is it unreasonable to expect us to be so discerning?)

    I think Twain can be totally forgiven for stereotyping Jim (the reason some still stupidly insist the novel is racist) for without it the story would not have been able to sneak up on the unsuspecting reader of the day, who at some point must have thought: “Hey! The nigger in this book is a person just like me!”

    • Allen DeGorf permalink
      January 5, 2011 3:06 pm

      Exactly right, Lynn!

      Years ago I taught a literature course in which Joseph Conrad’s piece “The Nigger of the Narcissus”was assigned reading. There were a handful of black students in the class, and I was a bit nervous about conducting the class discussion. I confronted the problem head on and discovered that the black students easily understood that the word was in common use when Conrad was writing, and they were more comfortable during the discussion than I was. To suggest otherwise now is demeaning to students both black and white, especially to black, because it suggests a kind of paternalistic censorship. It’s insulting to Twain too.

      I’m reminded of Ashcroft and his covering up the naked statutes. Migawd!

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        January 5, 2011 3:32 pm

        Remember, the ancient Greeks and Romans knew nothing of modesty and, contrary to what we might think, depicted human genitals in their statuary. It was not until a series of fastidious popes, beginning in the 16th century, that fig leaves were affixed to the statues we associate with antiquity. The most active, though not the most destructive, of these papal bluenoses was Innocent X. We fiddle with history at our peril, for how can we hear it speak if we distort its voice? Anachronism, like nostalgia, is one of the great sins against the past.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 5, 2011 3:22 pm

      I’m not sure I am calling for the complete elimination of the “N-word,” but I do reject the notion, championed by Lenny Bruce, that words have no power and if only we used all the bad words they could be leached of their capacity to harm. This is like saying guns have no power in themselves and we can take away their capacity to hurt people by arming every adult citizen. I don’t believe the N-word has any place in casual usage, in conversation and so forth, and I think it should be used, like explicit sex, only with great care in the arts. But while I wish, say, that Chris Rock might tone it down a bit in his monologues, I had no problem with the word as used in the TV drama The Wire, where it was simply a realistic part of everyday speech.

      • Lynn Demarest permalink
        January 5, 2011 11:34 pm

        How would one, then, judge John Lennon’s “Woman is the nigger of the world”?

        Or Mel Brook’s Blazing Saddles: “The sheriff is a nigger!”?

        Both John and Mel showed that the useful word “nigger” has more power when used against bigots than by them.

        Dave Chappelle’s hilarious (and powerful) bit about the black white supremacist (who doesn’t know he’s black because he’s blind) is another great example.

        See also, Chappelle’s “The Niggar Family,” which is a more direct play on the word and its various uses.

        I agree with Lenny Bruce that our reactions to words is what gives them power, and repeated and open use dilutes their shock value and so lessens our response. For example, hearing that John McCain had called his wife a “cunt” took a bit of the edge off the word, for if it’s good enough to be used by a war hero running for president, maybe it’s not so bad.

  3. January 5, 2011 2:17 pm

    ‘Twas ever thus. Members of a black club at Miami-Dade Community College complained about Huck Finn for the N-word back in the late 1960s. The college compliantly took the book off the required reading list, substituting Billy Budd.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 5, 2011 3:23 pm

      Oh my God. That’s tragic! Have you ever tried to get through Billy Budd?!?

  4. Candice Simmons permalink
    January 5, 2011 5:02 pm

    I read banned books. And shall continue to do so. What’s the use of reading some wimpy rewritten version which changes the whole meaning of the story!

    Oh, and I love rap music. I can even listen to it without “undesirable” noun slangs falling into my southern whitebread vocabulary.

    Sense and sensibilities. Whatever. And a little common sense goes a long way. Do what you want, but can’t we just leave Huckelberry Finn alone for a change?

  5. January 5, 2011 8:25 pm

    And then there was John Lennon and Yoko trying to defend their song on Dick Cavett, “Women is the Nigger of the World.”

  6. January 5, 2011 8:25 pm

    Sorry, “Woman” not women. Geez.

  7. Candice Simmons permalink
    January 5, 2011 9:50 pm

    I love that song too. I guess we are not all politically correct. Oh, and I loved that show too.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 6, 2011 3:01 pm

      I, too, love that song, which was an important stage in the process that eventually turned me out as a freshly minted feminist. The song’s use of the word in question is precisely correct, nicely provocative, intellectually challenging — and it has a good beat and you can dance to it. The word “nigger” is so supremely awful because, more than any other slur, it is intended to negate utterly (not merely downgrade) the humanity of those to whom it is applied. In that sense, “woman is the nigger of the world.” If you want more erudite support of my thesis, see Marilyn French’s book, The War Against Women.

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        January 7, 2011 12:33 pm

        Let me add that after Richard Pryor stopped using the “N-word,” he was still funny. Duh.

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