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The Conversation: What's the harm of sanitizing 'Huck Finn'?

January 6, 2011 | 12:02 pm

Huck Finn 1 In yesterday's Boston Globe, Rob Anderson defended NewSouth Books’ decision to override offensive language in "Huck Finn," arguing the N-word is more offensive today than it was during the late 1800s when Mark Twain wrote the classic novel. "Yes, the 'n word' was impolite and rude when Twain included it in the book -- 219 times, to be exact -- but it didn't carry the same historical, cultural, or political baggage that it does now," he writes.

Still the "n-word" is a part of our history, and it's an important part of "Huck Finn," argues a New York Times editorial. An excerpt from That's not Twain: "The trouble isn’t merely adulterating Twain's text. It's also adulterating social, economic and linguistic history. Substituting the word 'slave' makes it sound as though all the offense lies in the 'n-word' and has nothing to do with the institution of slavery. Worse, it suggests that understanding the truth of the past corrupts modern readers, when, in fact, this new edition is busy corrupting the past."

But does it really matter if schoolchildren read a sanitized version of Mark Twain's classic, wonders James Duban, a professor of English at the University of North Texas. What's more important, he says in the NYT's Room for Debate, is that we get kids reading. "In today's wasteland of 'gaming' and other electronic distractions, I applaud any effort to perpetuate the reading and enjoyment of great fiction."

Mark Twain Yes it matters, argues our editorial Leave "Huck" alone: "Twain's masterwork is a moving reflection of attitudes in the pre-Civil War South (and of its author's postwar sensibilities, which were ahead of their time with regard to race but behind our own). It's the struggle of a white youth, Huck, to reconcile his recognition of the humanity and equality of an escaped slave with the views of a society that considers him little better than an animal and uses epithets to describe him. The language, then, is very much part of the story and the history. Trying to protect students from the full ugliness of racism by softening that language does a disservice to them, and it's all too easy to imagine the crimes against literature that would result if this kind of thing caught on."

Not to mention the hypocrisy, The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates points out. "This is our system of fast-food education laid bare: Children are roaming the halls singing "Sexy Bitch," while their neo-Confederate parents are plotting to chop the penis off Michelangelo's David, and clamoring for Gatsby and Daisy to be reunited."

Los Angeles Times Book Critic David Ulin says we have to step up. He writes, "Literature, after all, is not there to reassure us; it's supposed to reveal us, in all our contradictory complexity. The fact that it makes us uncomfortable is part of the point -- like all great art, it demands that we confront our half-truths and self-deceptions, the justifications and evasions by which we measure out our daily lives."

The "Huck Finn" debate has been a hot-button issue for our readers as well. Their thoughts after the jump:

ALSO:

Between sanitizing Twain's classic and canceling a Monrovia high school production of 'Rent,' it's been a tough week for the arts in academia

Meghan Daum takes issue with another "n word" --narcissist

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The real blasphemy: Pakistan's law not only threatens people like Asia Bibi, it strengthens radicals and the Taliban

--Alexandra Le Tellier



Illustration: "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Credit: UC Berkeley Library

Photo: American writer Mark Twain. Credit: Associated Press

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