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

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:


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

The Terminator's surrender

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


Comments () | Archives (16)

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Just like our educational system to try an sanitize a situation instead of talk about it with the kids and how history has changed and keeps changing. To think these children haven't heard worse words is pure lunacy! Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.


This is NOT about censorship. It's about profiteering. English professor Alan Gribben and publisher NewSouth Books (both of whom SHOULD know better) are trying to make money selling an expurgated version to grade schools wary of introducing offensive words to young kids. The teachers' caution is understandable; Gribben and NewSouth's attempt to capitalize on it is deplorable.

Join the Facebook Protest Group: - http://www.facebook.com/pages/Boycott-Gribben-NewSouth-Books-Huck-Finn/154431531272953


Maybe they should be looking at what age is appropriate for the book, rather than changing the book to fit the age of the students.


...Sanitize, why. If one were to read this fable you come to an unstanding, Huck Finn began to realize the things he had infered, through hearsay about a slaves lack of feeling, for family etc., was in fact a lie. @ the time of widespread slavery through out this country, blacks weren't viewed as people, instead, seen as a % of full human. Only whites were full people. ...Jim had worries for the safety of his family, his wife, and his children, and with in the commuinity of held slaves. I feel this center core point is missed often to the listener have the story read aloud, and most probably, read in private. Maybe [that] point mentioned could be expanded on, to listeners. How does one "...Sanitize..."history? Many of some of the spoken words run true in speech from that period in the near total19th century, till today. Sanitize, no explain. And to teacher employed either in public or private education institutions, learn [how] to teach.


I agree this is censorship, but I remember in school we read the Lord of the Flies, Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird and Huck Finn. All great novels. All written by white authors. All use the n-word. We didn't read a single book by a black author in high school. That's the crime!

Ironman Carmichael

Isn't it about time to put jeans on Michelangelo's David and a halter top on the Mona Lisa? (And shouldn't she have gone blonde by now?)

And what's wrong with colorizing "Casablanca" and "Citizen Kane"?

While we're at it, let's rewrite "Romeo and Juliet" so that the two families appear on Oprah and resolve their differences!

At least leave alone the countless copies of Huckleberry Finn currently in print and in existence. If this desecration has to happen, at least have the honesty to label the new copies as abridged.

Ironman Carmichael

Talk about ethnic cleansing!


Frankly, I'm no fan of Twain. I've found his writing style tendentious and grueling, nevertheless, to sanitize his stories is the literary equivalent of grave-robbing!
Twain's legacy should rest on his words not some sanitized version of his words.
Political Correctness & victimhood has rum amok in this land of allegedly free speech [free if you're an idiot liberal, not so much otherwise!].

sandra m

Mark Twain wrote about the times in which he lived. We shouldn't sanitize the racism of that era. People today are embarrased and uncomfortable at the unvarnished racism that used to exist (still does? ) in this society. But, none of it should be deleted from our literature or go down the memory hole. THERE GOES MY EVERYTHING: WHITE SOUTHERNERS IN THE AGE OF CIVIL RIGHTS, 1945-1975 by Jason Sokol reveals through letters and other documentation the kind of vicious mindset that the civil rights movement was up against. Mark Twain's world was the same. We should preserve it to see how far we've come and to never slide back. That's easy to do when there's no documentation.


Editing Twain in this manner is just not a big deal, despite what the NYT and the Times of London (and so many others) may say. "Huckleberry Finn" is one of the most banned books in school libraries today and for a long time in the past. If the choice is between having kids not read Huck Finn and reading a sanitized version, I'd strongly recommend going with the sanitized version. These editorialists and others who are shocked!! shocked!! by such blasphemy are posturing to themselves in mirrors. By taking the position they do they're demonstrating only that they do not live in the real world and further justifying the pending mortality of the print media. Children need all the books we can possibly give them, censored or not. Save your censorship problems for public libraries.


Censorship in literature is meddling with the work and directs attention to the meddler. Additionally, no input of the Author destroys the connection between him and the reader. Censors glory in power to dictate just as the Church refused the Bible to people who were not under it's control and dictated,claiming a higher connection to the creator. Censor the Story of Jesus & he would not rate a mention in Israel to whom the Messiah came.

Stephen Santamaria

One of the most important aspects of "Huckleberry Finn" is the paradox of Huck's sympathy for Jim despite his upbringing where a particular word was commonplace and slavery was generally accepted. Do you think his cruel father used the word 'slave' to refer to black people? To do so takes a leap of imagination that the author didn't intend.

Having seen breasts in a painting pixeled out so as not to offend (on PBS, no less), this incident of censorship, sadly, comes as little shock. Great art is the highest expression of our humanity. It should thus be considered sacrosanct, especially if one has any inkling of what the artist goes through to achieve it.


Why limit censorship of the 'N' word in literature to Mark Twain's 'Huckleberry Finn'? How about next applying this retroactive substitution to the works of playwright August Wilson, most specifically to his play 'Two Trains Running' where the 'N' word is uttered by African American characters in casual conversation well over 100 times as written, and Wilson's works are frequently performed on stages in theatres throughout the United States.


@MartyK... isn't the whole book offensive? Isn't it supposed to be?
I have to say I have mixed feelings about this issue. The thought of more students reading Twain is quite an incentive. But changing Twain's words is not. It's too bad the people who have "banned" the book don't realize what an excellent learning experience they are preventing. It's our nation's pre- and post - civil war history in a nutshell and a perfect context to constructively discuss racial tensions - past and present.


For all those who will miss seeing the "N-word" in Twain's classic tale, they can always listen to it any time they want on just about any gansta rap song. Over and over and over and... This desecration of an American classic is the height of hypocrisy, and does absolutely nothing to further the cause of anti racism. In fact, it does the opposite.


Uglieness often depends on the eye of the beholder.



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