If only Mark Twain were alive to skewer the censorious protectors of modern sensitivities who have taken to banning Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the classroom and now to excising its offensive words.
A new edition published by NewSouth Books will expurgate all 219 uses of the N-word, and the use of the word “injun,” for good measure. Twain probably wouldn’t be surprised, since bluenoses have been after his masterpiece from the beginning. The Concord, Mass., public library rejected the book upon its publication in 1885. It considered Twain’s handiwork “rough, coarse, and inelegant, dealing with a series of experiences not elevating, the whole book being more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people.”
The good librarians of Concord must not have read far enough into the novel to realize that it satirizes many of the “rough and coarse” people with which it deals. Just as today’s critics of the book miss that it condemns racism, brilliantly and movingly, although much too subtly for the witless commissars of offensiveness.
The editor of the NewSouth edition, Alan Gribben, isn’t among them. To his credit, he wants the book’s audience to widen rather than shrink in the controversy over one word. So he’s well-intentioned in replacing the N-word with “slave,” but mistaken: Rewriting Twain is wrong on all levels.
It does violence to Twain’s artistry. Part of the genius of the tale of the runaway Huck and his slave friend Jim is how it reproduces the speech of the time. According to The Oxford Companion to Mark Twain, he experimented with five different spellings of “something” to capture how Jim said it: “suffin,” “sumfin,” “sumf’n,” “suthin,” and — the finalist — “sumfn.”
Twain uses the N-word so much because it was inescapable. In the 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. joked about genteel Southerners who still couldn’t quite get their mouths around the word “Negro,” saying “Nigra” instead. And that was about 120 years after Huck set out with Jim on a raft down the Mississippi.
What was the Mississippi River Valley like around 1840? Consider the fate of Elijah P. Lovejoy, who was killed by a mob in the town of Alton, Ill., for the offense of publishing an abolitionist newspaper. Add a darkly comic twist, and the story could appear in Mark Twain.
This is the irony of sanitizing Huck Finn. Those who rail against the novel’s antiquated vocabulary are usually the same people who revel in America’s failings. But they’re effectively whitewashing our history. Nothing better captures the quotidian racial ugliness of that time and place than Huck Finn’s deadening, inescapable use of the N-word.
Editing out the word eases the sting of Twain’s rebuke of mid-19th-century conventions. It is Jim, the character who is demeaned and hunted like an animal, who is most humane. While Huck’s father is an ignorant drunk who beats and robs him, Jim desperately misses his own family, and his conscience lashes him for having once hit his daughter unjustly. Huck reflects on this and remarks, “He was a mighty good n——, Jim was.”
Strike the offending word from the text and you lose the point. The attitudes of the time kept Huck from seeing what was obviously in front of him — simply a man, and a better one than most. Twain said that Huck had “a sound heart and a deformed conscience.” The boy’s triumph is rising above the forces that shaped him and deciding to help Jim run away, even though it’s supposed to be wrong. “All right then, I’ll go to hell,” he tells himself.
Huck thought — because he was told by every adult around him — that it was a sin and a crime to free Jim and treat him as equal, and resolves to do it anyway. It’s hard to imagine a more devastating critique of antebellum America, or a more affecting portrayal of the power of human fellow-feeling, than that. Please, don’t try to improve Huck Finn.
— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2010 by King Features Syndicate.