The 'n'-word gone from Huck Finn – what would Mark Twain say?

A new expurgated edition of 'Huckleberry Finn' has got some Twain scholars up in arms.

The Mark Twain House & Museum
If you look long enough, you'll find that Twain had an answer for just about everything.

Auburn University English professor Alan Gribben admits that he has always been a bit uncomfortable about teaching the American classics "Huckleberry Finn" and "Tom Sawyer" because of their language – principally, Mark Twain's use of the word "nigger."

“I found myself right out of graduate school at Berkeley not wanting to pronounce that word when I was teaching either ‘Huckleberry Finn’ or ‘Tom Sawyer,’ ” he said. “And I don’t think I’m alone.”

So Gribben has produced a new, expurgated version of the two books, to be released in February. In 219 spots, the text replaces the word "nigger" with the word "slave" and also substitutes the word "Indian" for "injun" wherever that word was used.

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The result has been a firestorm of criticism on the Internet.

"The N-word belongs in 'Huckleberry Finn,' " insists Elon James White in Salon. "The book, which deals directly with racism, is not better served by erasing the racial slur." For White, it's all about fear – America's fear of confronting the truth about its racist past. If we allow ourselves to expurgate history (or literature), he argues, "we will find ourselves with a generation that's woefully misinformed and it will be completely our fault."

"The word is terrible. But it's a linchpin of this book," argues Alexandra Petri in The Washington Post. Removing it would be like "renaming '1984' '2084' because the current title does not reflect how pleasant life was under the Reagan administration."

It's hard not to wonder: What would Twain himself – who became the unlikely superstar of last year's book scene with his newly released autobiography – have said about the uproar?

Chris Meadows may have found the answer. Writing for TeleRead, he points out that – although the n-word might not have been so shocking to readers in Twain's time – severe discomfort with his writing is nothing new.

In fact, Meadows points out, the Brooklyn Public Library considered banning the books due to their "coarseness, deceitfulness and mischievous practices." A librarian there wrote to Twain asking him to defend his books.

Twain responded: "I am greatly troubled by what you say. I wrote 'Tom Sawyer' & 'Huck Finn' for adults exclusively, & it always distressed me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean. I know this by my own experience, & to this day I cherish an unappeased bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and ever draw a clean sweet breath again on this side of the grave."

When it comes to verbal swordplay, it's hard to best the master.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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