Last month, I finished teaching my 11th-grade students what I consider the greatest novel in the history of American literature, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And I decided I wanted to show the class a movie version of the story. I found a made-for-TV version from the 60s, which I didn’t screen beforehand. (It was in the school library, what could be wrong with it?)
As it turned out, an awful lot. While the film began pretty much in synch with the book, although a few incidents were left out, it didn’t seem anything to get upset about. Until Huck began his journey down the Mississippi River. The next thing I knew, he was encountering the characters Twain named the “Duke” and the “Dauphin.” It is a testament to my students that so many of them immediately realized what was wrong with this.
“Wait a minute,” one of them said. “Where’s Jim?”
If you’ve never read Huckleberry Finn, allow me to explain. Jim is a runaway slave who joins Huck in his adventure on the Mississippi. In fact, Jim is the impetus for the journey — early in the novel Huck fakes his own death to escape his father, but when he discovers that Jim is suspected in his murder, he promises to help him escape to the Free States by traveling south on the Mississippi until it joined with the Ohio River, which Jim could take north. At first, Huck wrestles with his conscience, as he is technically helping with the theft of property (Jim) from somebody who has always treated him well (Jim’s owner, Miss Watson). Through their shared experiences, though, Huck comes to view Jim as a human being and reject ingrained attitudes of racism and acceptance of slavery that he was brought up with. It is, in fact, a masterpiece of American literature.
Of course, that means somebody wants to come along and screw it the hell up.
In the worst case of a crime against literature since Snooki got a book deal, Entertainment Weekly is reporting that NewSouth Books is publishing a revised edition of Huck Finn, in which all instances of the dreaded N-Word have been removed. I am, of course, sensitive to this word, just like everybody else on the planet. I don’t use it and I find its use morally repugnant. But I also respect Mark Twain and what he was trying to do with this incredible novel. Having re-read it so recently, one of the things that struck me about the book is the way Twain used that word to puncture holes in those characters that clung to racist ideals. The first reason most people will give for rejecting this change will be because the word is a period-accurate term, regardless of how modern readers think of it, and that is true. But even more importantly, if you remove that word from the book, much of the power is gone.
Twain didn’t just use that word because it was accurate to the dialect of the time. He also used it to demonstrate just how much it was (and, sadly, still is) used to dehumanize black people. By replacing that word with a euphemism, or even a less emotionally charged racist term, we lose what Mark Twain was trying to accomplish. Take, for example, the conversation between Huck and Tom Sawyer’s Aunt Sally in Chapter 32. Huck (pretending to be Tom for reasons too complicated to get into here) is telling one of his many lies, this one including a steamboat that blew a cylinder head. Sally, hearing about the “accident,” asks a perfectly reasonable question:
“Good gracious! Anybody hurt?”
Huck’s response? “No’m. Killed a n*****.”
Sally’s reply? “Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.” (Emphasis mine.)
When we got to this part of the book, several of my students were horrified at what Sally said. And dammit, that’s how they should feel, because (in case you can’t figure it out yourself) she’s basically saying here that black people aren’t human beings. There’s no other interpretation. Would it mean the same thing if Huck had used a different word? Technically, yes. Would it have had the same impact? Hell no.
What makes it even stupider to me is that the editor of this Huck Finn, a supposed “Twain expert” named Alan Gribben, has chosen to replace the inflammatory word with the word “slave.” Which I suppose wouldn’t look out of place, as that word is already used liberally throughout the book, but will it do the job of the dreaded N-word? No. And for one simple reason. The N-word is a racially derogatory term. “Slave” is not.
Although American slaves were overwhelmingly black, they weren’t all black, nor were the slaves of many other cultures throughout history. In some culture or another, slaves have been Asian, white, Christian, Jewish, children, adults, men, women… slavery itself is a dehumanizing institution, and Twain demonstrates that wonderfully in his book the way it is right now. But slavery itself is not a racial institution. Admittedly, for the characters in this book who use the word in question, when they refer to slaves, they’re talking about black people. But the word “slave” is not a derogatory term for someone who is black. The other word is. And for that reason, if no other, this change is utterly inadequate to accomplish the goal of the brilliant Mark Twain.
Fortunately, Huckleberry Finn is in the public domain. This is, of course, the reason that NewSouth Books is able to publish their version –the book is out of copyright and Twain’s estate has no way to stop anybody from doing whatever the hell they want with it. But because of this same law, other publishing companies (Bantam, Penguin, or anybody else) who want to publish an unedited version of the novel will be perfectly free to do so. So when you’re shopping, friends, make sure you get the original version. Make sure that Mark Twain’s message is communicated unaltered. Make sure that you can view history in perfect clarity, so that we can recognize how far we’ve come, and know exactly the direction we need to go.