Censor Huckleberry Finn?

>> Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Hello all,

Normally I don’t write posts “off the cuff” as I am doing now, but I was dismayed this evening to learn that NewSouth Books’ upcoming edition of Mark Twain’s 'Huckleberry Finn' will be edited to remove the “N-word” and replace it with “slave” and will do the same to an upcoming edition of 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer'. The new edition will also remove the word “injun” though I have not heard and am not sure what it will be replaced with (I presume it will be something obvious like “Indian”).

What I don’t want to do is overreact. I realize this may have a limited impact for some time to come if it has a significant impact at all, but at the same time I think this has potential to be very significant in our educational system by promoting and charting a new “course” and means of writing and learning history that would be severely detrimental to learning. In my estimation, it should therefore be treated as significant.

One of the big themes in Huckleberry Finn (if not the primary “take away” lesson/theme) is the silliness, wrongheadedness and moral indefensibility of race based discrimination. Racism imbeds itself into cultures in both subtle and not-subtle ways and in obviously wrong and marginally wrong ways. Terms and labels are often used by a group or groups to demean other people...though such terms and labels in and of themselves might otherwise be harmless. In the case and times of Huckleberry Finn both the terms “nigger” and “injun” were demeaning terms that denoted the slavery, segregation and racism of the times. Jim, the enslaved (runaway slave) Negro friend of Huckleberry Finn represents a class of people who at that time were widely enslaved and treated as less than human physically and - perhaps worse yet - viewed consciously and sub-consciously as inferior beings to their "masters". Terms such as "nigger" are largely born of the conscious and sub-conscious varieties of racism and commonly associated with it...which is why such terms are always a sensitive matter.

As Huckleberry and Jim grow in friendship throughout the story Huckleberry begins more and more to see and view Jim in his true light - not as a “nigger” - but as a human, as a friend and as an equal. For his part, Jim proves himself to be the deepest and truest sort of friend (John 15:13) and by the end of the story both Huckleberry and the reader are struck by the silliness and wrongness of the term “nigger” and - more precisely - what it represented. To remove the cultural words and connotations of the time would be to remove the essence of Jim and his role in the story.

Huckleberry Finn is a carefully crafted masterpiece that does more than tell a good story. But, if we expunge the terms and cultural context of the time how are we to learn from our past? And, if we don’t learn from our past, how are we not doomed to repeat our mistakes?

All this being said…I haven’t even touched the censorship issue and that issue is deserving of much discussion.

I neither doubt nor question the good intentions of NewSouth Books’. No doubt many will question and analyze them and their motives and cast aspersions on them. I don’t wish to do that though. I believe their decision is wrong irrespective of their good or bad intentions and I hope their reasoning does not become a trend. We must not sugar coat history. It is what it is and we are foolish to take offense by it. We should learn from it, and learn from its fullness, even when it is ugly.

In closing - Anderson Cooper conducted an excellent interview (in my opinion) on his show that I am linking and recommend you watch. I don’t necessarily agree with all that is said, but it is worth viewing nonetheless.

New Edition of 'Huckleberry Finn' to lose the N-word

God bless and veritas supra omnis!


Sarah Elizabeth January 6, 2011 at 5:39 AM  

Wow, quite frankly I am appalled that they are considering stripping away timeless moral lessons from beloved literature. I couldn't agree with you more on your stance on this issue.

I love reading your posts by the way, Mark...they seem to make me (and I'm sure everyone else too) open my eyes wider and examine my heart deeper. Thanks for being willing to tackle truths aloud!

God bless,

Jennifer January 6, 2011 at 7:50 AM  

Agreed. I must admit that I haven't actually finished The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn...yet...but I do think it would change it in a way that it shouldn't be change. I have an English major for a sister, and she's done enough studying to know that certain words are used to bring about a certain response because of the cultural significance.

Mark Hutchins January 6, 2011 at 8:43 AM  

@ Sarah: Thanks for the encouragement! My hope is to "tackle" the core issues of the day in a relevant manner, so feedback such as yours is something I'm very grateful for. :-)

@ Jennifer: it sounds like your sister could give good insight into and thoughts on this issue. :-) I haven't actually read every word of Huckleberry Finn from (I have read Tom Sawyer from cover to cover), but I have read "through" it a couple times and seen several film versions so I feel comfortable conversing about it.

Camden January 6, 2011 at 1:45 PM  

Normally an issue like this wouldn't catch my attention, but this one brought back memories. A year ago when I was taking a literature class at a community college, our professor let us choose from a list of books that have been censored in one respect or another. Can you guess what I chose? "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." =)

Having written a four page paper on the issue and given a fifteen minute in-class presentation on it, I heartily say, "I agree."

Culture is what culture is. You don't have to agree with it, but don't change history to seem like a kinder version of itself. I think you did an excellent job of analyzing the situation. =)


Romans 2:11

For God shows no partiality.

Mark Hutchins January 6, 2011 at 2:14 PM  

@ Camden: you wouldn't happen to have your notes still, would you? Perhaps they are Counter Cultural? ;-)

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