Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Publisher's Shameful Censorship of 'Huckleberry Finn'

An Alabama-based publisher is making news as their new edition of Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" will be censored to remove what they call "hurtful epithets" and to halt "preemptive censorship" of Twain's novel. But the motive is most likely to A.) get publicity and B) sell books.

So no use of the word "injun" and the word "slave" will replace the word most often referred to today as the "n-word". It's a cheap shot at fame or infamy from the publisher, NewSouth Books, which offers a defense here and even has a blog on their actions here.

We may applaud Twain’s ability as a prominent American literary realist to record the speech of a particular region during a specific historical era, but abusive racial insults that bear distinct connotations of permanent inferiority nonetheless repulse modern-day readers. Twain’s two books do not deserve ever to join that list of literary “classics” he once humorously defined as those “which people praise and don’t read,” yet the long-lofty status of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn has come under question in recent decades. In this connection, it seems relevant to remember that Twain habitually read aloud his day’s writings to an audience gathered on the porch of his summer retreat overlooking Elmira, New York, watching and listening for reactions to each manuscript page. He likewise took cues about adjusting his tone from lecture platform appearances, which provided him with direct responses to his diction. As a notoriously commercial writer who watched for every opportunity to enlarge the mass market for his works, he presumably would have been quick to adapt his language if he could have foreseen how today’s audiences recoil at racial slurs in a culturally altered country."


The assumption is that the novels are fundamentally flawed. And it's likewise sad to see educated people and publishers embrace censorship rather than scholarship. By dropping the language the publishers remove and reconstruct the history and the themes of the book, which focused a laser-sharp attention on prejudice and the destruction that prejudice leveled at our nation.

Claims that the changes will halt the books from being banned, to allow for more school-age youngsters to read the books are deceitful. Any Twain scholar worth a dime can offer up Twain's own response to censorship of his work and his response to allowing children to read his works:

I am greatly troubled by what you say. I wrote 'Tom Sawyer' & 'Huck Finn' for adults exclusively, & it always distressed me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean. I know this by my own experience, & to this day I cherish an unappeased bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and ever draw a clean sweet breath again on this side of the grave."

Such a deft handling of idiotic worries of so-called community standards.

Another defense of the censorship - strike that - another defense of changing the entire meaning of the novel claims:

New South is simply giving educators and other readers the option of enjoying Twain's work without tripping over a derogatory term, especially one coming from its hero."

Wrong. The derogatory worldview Twain presents is precisely what he wanted readers to confront. If you remove the challenging language, what's left? A light-hearted romp across the countryside? If the characters don't address the reality that many in America at that time viewed Jim as sub-human just because of his skin color, then the book's meaning is gutted. If a teacher wants students to read Twain's work absent it's meaning and context, then what is it exactly they are teaching?

And one more note for these alleged "scholars" about what kids today read or are capable of comprehending - the top bestselling Young Adult book last year? The Hunger Games: a futuristic tale where the government selects a boy and a girl from various districts to fight to the death on live TV.


  1. Good post. I was surprised when I saw headlines about changes to Twain's books. Why sanitize these books when, as you say, some of the most popular books for young people are very disturbing, as are video games.

  2. Richard Cook10:10 AM

    Anyone wanting to look at this issue needs to read Harvard professor Randall Kennedy's 2002 book Nigger.He is African American. He was perplexed by a word that can be used with impunity by African-Americans in almost any context, but has been banned for use by all non African-Americans. It is a thoughtful, honest work. It should be mentioned that when he went on tour for the book that most news outlets refused to mention the title of his book.
    It should be noted that Huckleberry Finn was not discussed as a book about race until almost World War I.
    It should also be mentioned that the final third of the book is a train wreck. Despite this, it is a classic. Jim is the only decent person in the whole book. I think they call this irony.