Huck Finn Gets 21st-Century Makeover

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click to enlarge Huck and Jim as they appeared in the first edition of Huckleberry Finn in 1884. - image via
Huck and Jim as they appeared in the first edition of Huckleberry Finn in 1884.

You all remember Huckleberry Finn, right? That 1830s Missouri urchin who finds himself adrift on the Mississippi River with a black slave named Jim and learns to appreciate Jim's fundamental humanity and, in one of the greatest epiphanies in American literature, tears up the letter that would send him back to his owner? Who speaks in the vernacular of his time and place, which includes poor grammar and a particular word which starts with "n"?

That word has caused The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to earn a permanent place on banned-books lists, particularly in elementary schools. That's all about to change, though. Huck -- or at least his new editor -- has learned the error of his ways and will henceforth refer to Jim and other African-Americans in less offensive terms.

The new edition of Huckleberry Finn is due out next month, bound in a single volume with its prequel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. This is especially appropriate because now both books involve whitewashing. But instead of getting other people to do his whitewashing for him, Mark Twain scholar Alan Gribben is doing it all by himself.

Gribben, who is also the chair of the English department at Auburn University in Alabama, had long been bothered by some of Huck's language and, when reading the book aloud, changed one particular racial slur to "slave."

He was inspired to take wider action, though, after the less-offensive Tom Sawyer was chosen for Alabama's Big Read. As the author of the introduction of a special Big Read edition released by NewSouth books in Montgomery, Gribben found himself touring libraries across the state to speak about the book.

"After a number of talks," he told Publishers Weekly, "I was sought out by local teachers, and to a person they said we would love to teach this novel, and Huckleberry Finn, but we feel we can't do it anymore. In the new classroom, it's really not acceptable....For a single word to form a barrier, it seems such an unnecessary state of affairs."

And so Gribben and NewSouth teamed up for the new edition of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. In addition to eliminating the 219 instances in which "nigger" appears in Huck Finn, the new edition also changes the name of "Injun Joe" to the more politically-correct "Indian Joe."

Gribben has already taken some criticism for his editing job. Thomas Wortham, a Twain scholar at UCLA, has compared Gribben to Thomas Bowdler, the nineteenth-century editor who took it upon himself to clean up Shakespeare and gave us the handy word "bowdlerize." Wortham told Publishers Weekly, "A book like Professor Gribben has imagined doesn't challenge children [and their teachers] to ask, 'Why would a child like Huck use such reprehensible language?'"

NewSouth's publisher Suzanne La Rosa stands behind Gribben and the new edition. "We recognized that some people would say that this was censorship of a kind," she admitted, "but our feeling is that there are plenty of other books out there -- all of them, in fact -- that faithfully replicate the text, and that this was simply an option for those who were increasingly uncomfortable, as he put it, insisting students read a text which was so incredibly hurtful. I almost don't want to acknowledge this, but it feels like he's saving the books."

Whether the books needed to be "saved" in the first place remains up for debate. NPR asked its listeners whether it was worth changing Huck Finn to increase the chances that more young people would read it. Of the nearly 3,000 who have responded so far, 96 percent say "It's still the wrong thing to do."

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