New South Books has just announced that its forthcoming edition of Mark Twain’s landmark novel Huckleberry Finn will be published without the n-word, that notoriously negative name for those Americans of African descent. In this new edition the n-word will be replaced with “slave.”
As most people know, the novel is a first-person narration from the view of a boy who, after becoming friends with Jim, an escaping slave, begins to question the deep-seated racism that he has always taken for granted. The son of an abusive alcoholic ignoramus, Huck can identify with the degradation of slavery and ultimately turns his back on the people he had thought were his own to protect the man he used to dismiss as just another, ahem, n-word.
Not surprisingly, the reaction has been clamorous, and the objections are both predictable and right. Huckleberry Finn is a classic of literature and should not be rewritten, even if the rewrites are small and the intent honest. It offends the memory of the author, and sets a terrible precedent. Still worse, it prevents its school-aged readers from learning an important and timely lesson: if we want to fight against racism, we can’t be afraid to confront the realities of racism.
At its best, the substitution mutes the intensity of the novel since the n-word is meant to suggest a lesser being than a white man. Thus Huck criticizes two con-men he encounters: “if ever I struck anything like it, I’m a nigger. It was enough to make a body ashamed of the human race.” Substituting “slave” here empties the first sentence of meaning because in our modern ears “slave” does not suggest a bad person, only a mistreated and oppressed one. Of course, Huck is a racist for saying what he says, but that is the point. Huck helps Jim despite his upbringing, even when he doesn’t understand it himself. That Twain doesn’t allow Huck to simply and immediately adopt modern progressive notions of race is a testament to his skill as a writer, for it would have made the novel silly and over-sentimental.
Worse, though, is that in some places, the changes will make a hash of important passages, because, as everyone knows, the n-word is not a synonym for slave. To be sure, in many instances, an innocent reader of the novel might read a reference to Jim as a “slave” and never notice the difference. But consider the following passage from the novel in which Huck’s deplorable father rails against the government:
Oh, yes, this is a wonderful govment, wonderful. Why, looky here. There was a free nigger there from Ohio—a mulatter, most as white as a white man. He had the whitest shirt on you ever see, too, and the shiniest hat; and there ain’t a man in that town that’s got as fine clothes as what he had; and he had a gold watch and chain, and a silver-headed cane—the awfulest old gray-headed nabob in the State. And what do you think? They said he was a p’fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything. And that ain’t the wust. They said he could VOTE when he was at home. Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to? It was ‘lection day, and I was just about to go and vote myself if I warn’t too drunk to get there; but when they told me there was a State in this country where they’d let that nigger vote, I drawed out. I says I’ll never vote agin. Them’s the very words I said; they all heard me; and the country may rot for all me—I’ll never vote agin as long as I live. And to see the cool way of that nigger—why, he wouldn’t a give me the road if I hadn’t shoved him out o’ the way. I says to the people, why ain’t this nigger put up at auction and sold?—that’s what I want to know. And what do you reckon they said? Why, they said he couldn’t be sold till he’d been in the State six months, and he hadn’t been there that long yet. There, now—that’s a specimen. They call that a govment that can’t sell a free nigger till he’s been in the State six months. Here’s a govment that calls itself a govment, and lets on to be a govment, and thinks it is a govment, and yet’s got to set stock-still for six whole months before it can take a hold of a prowling, thieving, infernal, white-shirted free nigger, and—”
Now, go through that passage and substitute “slave” for the offending word and see what happens. It becomes nonsense. “Free slave” is a contradiction, and how could a slave be a well-to-do professor? And what will editor Alan Gribben substitute for “mulatter”? Half-slave? But more than that, the whole point of the passage is to point out the possibilities of racial progress, that there are places where, given the opportunity, African Americans have prospered, and that it is the narrow-mindedness and self-righteousness of men like Huck’s father (men to whom words like the n-word come easily) that holds them back, not any inherent limitation related to their race. If it isn’t what it is, it’s something else.
To be sure, reading Huckleberry Finn today can be supremely discomforting, and many young people might have difficulty trying to contextualize and interpret the racist language in the book. But faced with that challenge, surely saving the actual book for a later grade is a better solution than giving them a more comfortable version now.
But if that’s the case, let’s not let “later” come to mean “never.”