A new edition of the American novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is causing an uproar. Its editors decided to change a controversial word used frequently in the novel that is offensive to many African-Americans. But the new version has upset Mark Twain scholars, who regard any changes to this classic work as literary sacrilege.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been controversial since it was first published in 1884. The novel, set along the Mississippi River in 1840s Missouri, profiles the life of a restless young boy who resists his community’s efforts to “civilize” him. He escapes from his abusive, alcoholic father by faking his own murder and heading off on his own. Huck Finn, as the main character is known, meets a runaway slave named Jim, and the book chronicles their life on the river.
Huck struggles with his conscience over whether to turn Jim in to his former owner. Eventually, he decides he would rather be damned than betray his friend, who is eventually freed when his former owner dies.
Author Mark Twain used the colloquial language of the times to describe Jim, including the word “nigger.” The term is a Southern variant of “negro,” a word derived from the Latin for “black” that has long been used to describe the dark-skinned African race.
In the context of the slave-owning American South of Huck Finn’s day, “nigger” was a common word that simply defined African-Americans’ lowly status. But decades later, by the mid-1950s and in the struggle for civil rights, the word became a bitter racial epithet. The late African-American poet Langston Hughes said the word ‘sums up for us who are colored all the bitter years of insult and struggle in America.’ And the word, which appears 219 times in Huckleberry Finn, has made the book too offensive for some readers.
In order to make the work more accessible to a modern audience, Mark Twain scholar and Auburn University professor Alan Gribben substituted the word “slave” for “nigger” in his revised edition, which combines Huckleberry Finn with another Twain work The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
Gribben has been quoted as saying teachers were not using the book in its original form because students found the language hurtful. Attempts to reach Gribben for this report were unsuccessful.
Jeff Nichols, the executive director of the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, said Twain chose his words on purpose, to reflect his times.
“He chose his words carefully - the use of the words the dialect that was chosen - very precisely to get across a point. This was a book that he wrote and published in the 1880s at the end of the Civil War, at the end of Reconstruction and the failure of Reconstruction and he saw African Americans losing the basic human rights that they were gaining after the Civil War quickly as Jim Crow laws were coming into being. And he was reacting against that,” Nichols said.
Barbara Jones is the director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, which tracks how often books have been banned from libraries. She says that changing the offensive term violates what Twain was trying to do, and opens the way for censorship of other controversial works.
“We would call this censorship. It is a type of censorship. And we believe that if we start changing books to conform to the current political discourse, it is a real slippery slope. And we are going to end up changing history, we are going to end up changing a lot of books that need to stay the way they are so that people can explain - classroom teachers, librarians, parents - can explain the meaning to the next generation,” he said.
Hilary Shelton is a spokesman for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a leading U.S. civil rights organization. He says use of the word “nigger” is offensive in a modern context - including in rap and Hip Hop lyrics and popular films. Even so, Shelton says Huckleberry Finn needs to be taught as it was originally written, and that modern-day students are smart enough to deal with it, even if they are offended by its language.
“I think our children’s learning of the lessons from Mark Twain is also extremely important. It is a part of our history. That component of it is not a pretty picture for us; it is not something we are proud of. But it is a part of our history. And one of the reasons, of course, that we teach history that most people think about is to prevent ourselves from making the same mistakes again,” Shelton said.
NewSouth Publishers in Alabama plans to release the revised edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - minus the “N” word - in February.