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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Torn about Tweaking Twain- POLL on the Right

I was a freshman in college when I first studied Huckleberry Finn under the wit and wisdom of Professor Christopher Yopp (may he rest in peace). 

Publishers at New South Books plan to release a new edition of Twain's most celebrated works,
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. What's different about their edition is that they are removing the "N" word throughout the works, which has caused it to be excluded from public and religious school curricula, and replacing it with the word "slave". New South publishers claim that their revisions remove "hurtful epithets". 

There has been much outcry and debate about these revisions, including the New York Times blog, "Room for Debate" with a post entitled: 
“That’s Not Twain,” in which they state that “there is no way to ‘clean up’ Twain without doing irreparable harm to the truth of his work.” 

I see both sides of the argument. At first thought, I am against editing the novels in this way, as it would weaken the historical integrity of the work, but upon further thought, this revision would make Twain's masterpieces available to thousands of youth, whether in public schools, religious private schools, or homeschooled who currently do not have access to them. Huckleberry Finn in particular, chronicling the journey of a boy and a slave named Jim who strike up a deep, unlikely friendship, helps to broaden thought about and promote strengthened race relations, which was atypical of the time period, which is something I wouldn't want my kids to miss out on. I'm with Keith Olbermann of MSNBC who said he is, 
 “of two minds” about the decision: “I despise censorship, and on the other hand, It’s madness that Huckleberry Finn is essentially off-limits to anybody until college or later.”

What do you think? 
Does the historical integrity of a classic outweigh its social and moral value?

Then again, if we take such liberties, are we then opening the door to erasing all kinds of offensive words from the classics? And who gets to decide what is offensive? (This brings to  mind all the bootleg copies of Titanic without the steamy love scene -- those who bought it apparently felt that censoring premarital sex outweighed the illegality of removing it).

So, what do you think? I'd especially like to hear my African American friends weigh in on this issue, as they own the issue, of course.
Vote in the poll on the right AND comments are especially welcome. 


New South Books
Huckleberry Finn- Wikipedia


  1. Obviously this is a sensitive subject, but from an English teacher's perspective. classics are often "classics" because they expose the more raw aspects of human nature, presenting the truth of human existence with all the imperfections, frailties, and weaknesses that make us human. On the other hand, this same honest representation of humanity includes our beauty, virtues, and strengths. To show only the good, and "revise" the bad, is to create a work that is misrepresentative, and therefore, with little to no value. Would it be okay with me for younger audiences to read an "adapted" version? Sure, but likely they wouldn't have the maturity to understand the complex relationship between Huck and Jim to begin with. When they are old enough to understand the historical and cultural context of the novel, they should also be old enough to understand the author's choice of vocabulary.

    And, having said all that as a teacher, I would like to add that intolerance and bigotry are vices that are NOT taught at school, but rather at home. The converse is likewise true: if you want tolerant, compassionate, open-minded children, don't expect them to learn it at school. Let them learn it from you, everyday.

  2. I was going to comment but @anonymous said it all. Great post and great response.

  3. I agree with anonymous. My 13yo is allowed to read books with less-than-beautiful language. BUT ONLY b/c she has been taught what is acceptable to repeat and what is NOT.

    The "n" word is a word I despise. I would not, however, want it out of the Huck Finn book. Why? b/c my children need to know that bigotry existed then AND it still exists now. It cannot be erased from history by a using the "find and replace" function.

    Can we erase all the damage done by leaders of the world by erasing their sins from the history books? Will we "white-wash" everything for our children in order to protect their minds? NO. They need to know. THey have to know. How can we change the things that went wrong in our world if we pretend they never happened?

    We have to teach right from wrong. And we have to teach the hard stuff. Right now, my oldest DD is reading Anne Frank's Diary. And she will read Huck Finn one day soon...the UNEDITED version.

  4. Thank you so much for the insightful commentary! I am absolutely delighted!