NewSouth Books, a publisher based in Alabama, is reprinting Mark Twain’s germinal book — Adventures of Huckleberry Finn — by censoring the words “nigger” and “injun” and replacing them with the words “slave” and “indian.”

Throughout the book — 219 times in all — the word “nigger” is replaced by “slave,” a substitution that was made by NewSouth Books, a publisher based in Alabama, which plans to release the edition in February.

Alan Gribben, a professor of English at Auburn University at Montgomery, approached the publisher with the idea in July. Mr. Gribben said Tuesday that he had been teaching Mark Twain for decades and always hesitated before reading aloud the common racial epithet, which is used liberally in the book, a reflection of social attitudes in the mid-19th century.

“I found myself right out of graduate school at Berkeley not wanting to pronounce that word when I was teaching either ‘Huckleberry Finn’ or ‘Tom Sawyer,’ ” he said. “And I don’t think I’m alone.”

That sort of editorial censorship is an outrage.  Books are written in a specific time and place — and they reflect environments and non-textual contexts that must be preserved and never presumed — and sometimes the process of that preservation is uncomfortable and uncompromising.

When you remove the “nigger” from “Nigger Jim” and when you replace “injun” with “Indian” — I wonder why the politically correct publisher didn’t use “Native American” instead of “Indian” to really round out the bowdlerization of a national classic novel — you are changing the absolute intention and morality of the original source material.

Mark Twain chose his words with precision, and when our modern day morality intervenes to censor the underlying riptide of a novel like Huck Finn, the entire experience of the book is forever ravaged by the “good intentions” of these editorial evildoers.

If some students are uncomfortable reading and discussing the word “nigger” in a classroom after hearing that word on the street, and in their colloquial music and mainstream movies — and other entertainment memes for most of their lives — then that’s a failure of teaching.

It is the instructor’s virtuous duty to set the foul lines when presenting a book for study, and you do that by being honest and introspective and you sometimes have to warn students they will read something that might just upset them and you help them through those painful moments because learning is hard and distasteful and sometimes bloody — and oftentimes offensive if you’re doing it right — and you should never run for cover from a cultural touchstone that may burn today when it was matter-of-fact in its own original moral framing.

Students must be made aware of the depth and breadth of history in a specific time and space and they must always evaluate the evolution of social values as well as recognizing the brusqueness of an ill-tempered moral turpitude that changes with the wind, and you get them there not by censoring what they read, but by giving them the tools to comprehend a moment and a place they must imagine beyond the delicate confines of their immediate lives.  The world existed before them; and the world will continue to spin beyond them.  The educated mind learns to accept the limits of a life and the immortality of free thought.

By removing “nigger” and “injun” from Huckleberry Finn, you whitewash a disruptive, national, history — better than Tom Sawyer ever could — by empowering those words far beyond any definition they ever earned on their own or that they deserve now in the proper light of the author’s original intention.

7 Comments

    1. It’s absolutely unconscionable, Gordon, that people feel like they can rewrite history for profit just because what is on-the-record doesn’t match their transient, convenient, precious, wants.

      This type of censoring doesn’t hurt those of us who read the original truth — but that sort of editorial profiteering and whitewashing of history mortally wounds those who don’t know any better because of their young learning and lack of experience.

  1. Why haven’t the politically correct insisted on substituting ‘African American Jim’?

    Back in the 60s and 70s Conrad’s ‘Nigger of the Narcissus’ used to be a prescribed text on most US freshman English courses, because it was short and simple and very right-wing, specifically in its anti-trade union postures. I wonder what they replaced it with?

    1. Hi Stan!

      Thanks for the excellent comment. You ask many great questions that I would love to see answered. I guess sometimes it is easier to ignore than to outright censor; and that “ignoring” becomes an effective blanket of censorship in itself.

      I know some Blacks are offended when they are labeled “African American” because it assumes the Black person is from America. On the East Coast, we have a lot of Nigerian and Jamaican immigrants where I live, and they REALLY HATE it when they hear the “African American” label applied by default. They often correct the labeler by saying, “I’m from Jamaica, not America. Just call me ‘Black’ because that’s what I am.”

      That said, I’m sure “Black Jim” — or even “Old Black Jim” — would infuriate the censors even more than “Slave Jim” because they’re duplicitous in that way and they live their lives creating, and then running from, similar double standards.

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