Huck Finn and Censorship

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Recently, NewSouth Books announced it would be publishing a revised version of Mark Twain’s classic novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, replacing all 219 uses of “the n-word” with “slave,” as well as making other such euphemistic changes to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

This story has been really interesting to me as both a writer and a high school English teacher. First, as a writer: Last year, a short piece of flash fiction I wrote was published in a student magazine through my MFA program. Due to several, let’s say, miscommunications (though right now I’m being rather euphemistic myself), the story I wrote was edited and published without my ever seeing or approving of the changes. Certain words were changed that altered, however slightly, the mood and character of the piece. Other words were changed that made the story inaccurate. Worse, whole sentences were added without my consent. Even the climax was changed!!!

I was furious. It didn’t matter that it was a 750 word story that appeared in a small student publication. It was the principle of the matter. The experience made me realize just how precious my words are to me, and that if anyone’s going to change something in a piece of writing—no matter how small—that change must be approved by the author. I might sound like a prima donna here, which is how I felt when I fired off a ranting email to the editor of this student publication, but anyone who writes must understand how much care is put into each word and sentence, how much time is put into each story we submit—not to mention how much of our own hearts—and to tamper with that without even asking is incredibly arrogant.

And that’s just me: a lowly MFA student writing a flash fiction piece in a small publication with a tiny circulation. But it’s about a thousand times more egregious to do it to Mark Twain, one of our cultural heroes and one of the greatest writers in American history. Ernest Hemingway said that all modern American literature comes from Huckleberry Finn. And yet these editors at NewSouth assume they know that certain words have to change to make this book more palatable to a modern audience? To me, that kind of hubris is astounding.

Now, from the perspective of a high school teacher: At my school, Huck Finn is a requirement for all American Lit students, which is how, in the past six years, I’ve taught the book twelve times. Teenagers seem particularly attuned to the concept of free speech, perhaps because it’s a time in their lives when freedoms are being doled out to them in greater increments. Every year, I discuss the continued censorship of the novel with my students and they nearly always find it ridiculous. They realize that the novel is actually an anti-racist book, and they feel insulted that adults assume that they don’t have the intelligence to see past the usage of the word for what the book really is. And this goes for all my students, regardless of their race. The repetition of the word only has potential to cause real trouble in a classroom if a teacher just jumps into the novel without having a frank discussion with the kids beforehand. Any high school teacher who would do that shouldn't be teaching in the first place.

We underestimate the intelligence of our students when we try to "protect" them in this way. We assume that they can't tell the difference between an author and a narrator. Yes, the word "nigger" appears 219 times in the book--but the book is narrated by Huck, a poor, uneducated kid who lives in America in the 1840's. If you read the "explanatory" author's note at the beginning of the book, Twain himself says, "in this book a number of dialogues are used; to wit, the Missouri NEGRO dialect." In other words, when Twain himself is speaking, he says “negro.” It’s only Huck who uses the “n-word” which, of course, is an accurate portrayal of how such a character would speak.

And let’s not forget the “warning” on the first page of the novel as well: “PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”

Somewhere, Twain is looking down on all of us and laughing.