Reports of Mark Twain’s death have always been greatly exaggerated, even after the real event happened in 1910. Despite mocking religion, exalting adolescent runaways, and wreaking havoc with the Arthurian legend, Twain has only kept bouncing back higher with every red-faced attempt to censor him. Until now.
In 2009, Auburn University English professor Alan Gribben was asked by NewSouth Books (a small publishing house in Montgomery, Ala., which specializes in books on Alabama history and civil-rights politics) to create a new combined edition of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for Alabama’s state-wide “Big Read Alabama” project, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. Gribben, a UC/Berkeley Ph.D. and co-founder of the Mark Twain Circle of America, was troubled about the invitation, or at least about one aspect of it — Twain’s unabashed use of the N-word, 219 times in Huckleberry Finn alone.
Twain’s ubiquitous use of a racial slur has made demands for sweeping Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer off the shelves something of a yearly carnival in schools and public libraries. Gribben’s, and NewSouth’s, solution? Rewrite Twain. Eliminate the N-word and replace it with “slave.” For good measure, eliminate “injun,” too. Like Capt. Bixby in Life on the Mississippi, Huck Finn will be so emptied of offense that you will be able to draw “a seine through his system” and not catch anything “to disturb your mother with.”
Is this kindness or silliness? Granted, the N-word is a vicious racial slur. It is intended to be mocking at best and demeaning at worst. But so is a great deal else in our literature and entertainment. The F-bomb and the C-word blip past on screens and in books without any reckoning of who is liable to be “offended” by them — especially since those who are, are generally of no account to the Spielbergs and Camerons. And where do we draw lines? The N-word sits, preening itself, 56 times in black novelist (and Twain contemporary) Charles W. Chesnutt’s The Conjure Woman (1899) and 31 times in his The Marrow of Tradition (1901). It bobs up in the work of black women writers, too: in Octavia Albert’s The House of Bondage (1891) and Frances Harper’s Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted, her 1893 novel which William Still thought would be useful reading in “thousands of colored Sunday-Schools, in the South . . . casting about for an interesting, moral, story-book, full of practical lessons.” They treated it as a slur, but it was an artifact of common language, and so they used it all the same.
What begins as tragedy gets repeated as farce. The tragedies the N-word symbolized in Twain’s day now come back as moments for the expression of unctuous sanitization. If there are demons in the N-word, we would be better teachers if we fought them in the open, like Chesnutt and Harper, rather than sweeping them genteelly under our academic carpets.
— Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce professor of the Civil War Era and director of Civil War Era Studies at Gettysburg College.