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Poll: Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn, and the N Word

HuckleberryFinnBlogging about items in the news is a time-honored tradition amongst lame hit-monger bloggers who just want traffic for the sake of traffic. But today I heard something that I would love to hear everyone weigh in on so I’m going to indulge. But first I need to share an experience with you:

A couple of months ago I answered the phone at the library. A voice asked for the reference desk. After I said I could help, the person said, “Yes, I have a question. Can you tell me if it is true that President Obama’s father was a n*****?”

I’ve become pretty desensitized to language, but hearing this word said so casually was beyond heavy. It was like getting a thumb in the eye accompanied by a kick in the juevos. The weirdest part was that as I spoke with the patron, it was obvious that their interest was genuine and they did not consider the word malicious.

Now, if you haven’t heard, Mark Twain scholar Dr. Alan Gribben has helped release a new version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in which the N word is replaced with the world “slave.”

This has generated a conversation that fascinates me. Mark Twain is my favorite author, and I think that Huckleberry Finn is his masterpiece. I also believe that if anything in literature is sacrosanct and should be left alone, it is Mark Twain. I am also not attached to the N Word and would be happy to see it go the way of the dodo. I think it’s poison.

Dr. Gribben stated that the revised book is the result of stories he heard in which teachers at various school levels were no longer teaching Huckleberry Finn because of the hurtful language. He felt that this move deprived students of reading one of the landmarks of American literature, if not the most important book produced by this country.

Hence, a classic, valuable book that can now be taught without the hurtful language.

Critics of the move suggest that by altering such a book, we no longer have the same book and students are not having the same experience that Twain intended as we engage with the text.

A note on Twain’s writing

As far as I know, I am one of the weirdos who has read every single word Mark Twain every published. He was a careful writer. Here’s my favorite quote from the man:

The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.

In other words, Twain chose the words he did for a reason. The offensive word in question appears over 200 times in the text, and accurately reflected the times. Twain was an abolitionist and he did not mince words when it came to his defense of the rights of non-whites in this country.

He did not use the word as a slur, but as an indictment of a societal norm that appalled him.

But does that matter today?

The thought that the book as originally intended could disappear from schools saddens me, but if an African-American is hurt by the word I would never, ever tell them they were wrong or start spouting off about what Twain’s intentions were.

A suggestion made on the BBC World Have Your Say program was that perhaps the book in its original form should simply be aimed at older students. Maybe it should be taken from elementary or Junior High or High Schools. That makes some sense to me.

It’s a fascinating issue and I think there are so many sides to it that just about everyone involved can be right in some way.

What do you think? Should the book be altered? Taught later? Should Twain’s intentions matter to today’s readers who find it offensive? Is it the same book with the changes?

I’m going to get a copy so I can read the changed edition. I’ll let you know how it goes.


PS: on the subject, if you’re looking for African American Fiction to read, that link will get you to the goods.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Heather January 6, 2011, 2:12 pm

    Keep in mind–Twain was a man of his time. When I taught Huckleberry Finn, the first thing I did was teach the BACKGROUND HISTORY in which thenovel is set–time period, social stuff, slavery, and yes, even how the N-word was necessary to keep things in historical context and to stick with the time and style of the novel. I also told my 7th graders at that time that if I ever heard that word pop out of their mouths any time they weren’t in that room and we weren’t discussing the novel, they would get written up for in-school suspension for using a racial slur. There was one black girl in the class at the time, too, and I approached her about the subject privately before class one day, and asked her if I should call her mom to give her a heads-up. The young lady said she was ok with it, and that she had read parts of Huckleberry Finn before this, in a 5th grade gifted class she was in. Twain wasn’t a racist. Anyone who has read the book can tell you that. So. . . does that mean folks are suddenly going to fly all over black kids who throw it around? How ’bout rap artists? Anybody gonna get onto them? Hmmmmmmmm. . . . Josh, this is gonna open up an interesting discussion, I think. I had heard about this, but was hoping it was just a stupid rumor.

    • Josh Hanagarne January 6, 2011, 3:34 pm

      Heather, how did the class as a whole respond to the book, in your opinion?

      • Heather January 7, 2011, 6:59 am

        They liked it okay–we had to skip some parts (the whole bit with the carpetbaggers/Duke thing got a little crazy) but the boys seemed to like it really well. The girls read it with no problem, but the boys seemed to especially like all the adventures and descriptions. The vocabulary was the most difficult part for a lot of these kids. THat was what bogged a lot of these kids down. Story-wise, though, they liked it.

        • brian March 23, 2011, 7:28 am

          hi heather what did the class do when u said the n word where they ok with it or no tell me ok

  • Tim January 6, 2011, 2:15 pm


    Thanks for your thoughts on this. I just find it ironic (is that the right word?) that they want to take that word out of a Mark Twain book….yet if you listen to a Kanye West CD you’ll hear it many many more times. Are we really “protecting” our kids?

  • cinderkeys January 6, 2011, 2:27 pm

    You are supposed to feel assaulted, hearing the word so much in Huckleberry Finn. Lose the word, and you lose the impact. The word helps readers understand how bad things really were, and how absolutely normal everybody thought it was back then.

    • Josh Hanagarne January 6, 2011, 3:36 pm

      Good call. I think assaulted sums it up very well.

  • rox January 6, 2011, 2:48 pm

    That is a tough one…
    Racist words seriously make me cringe. Three of my siblings have hispanic spouses, and they told me they were naive to think that racism does not exist. They constantly are being judged by their choice to marry outside their race. It is not just eneducated people with racist mentalities either. My sister stopped going to church when somebody told her that her older son was probably a more rebellious spirit than his siblings, because his skin was darker. Those kind of ideas make my stomach turn. As long as ideas like that exist, there will always be a racist strain in this society. It’s hard to believe it exists. I feel that Mark Twain did not have evil intentions when he wrote Huckleberry Finn, but I can relate to those who want to eradicate the racist talk altogether. Just want to move on. Grateful for your website Josh.

    • Josh Hanagarne January 6, 2011, 3:37 pm

      Thanks you. I hope you’re all doing well.

  • frank roberts January 6, 2011, 3:18 pm

    I often wonder why people think that because a book is about a child/children, that it is a children’s book. Twain was not writing for kids, but for adults. And his book (Huck Finn) was as controversial then as it is now, though for different reasons (lots of critics thought it was vulgar in general to have characters speak in the vernacular people actually spoke in). Some materials need context – when I first struggled to read The Sound and the Fury by Faulkner, I gave up; but when I went back to it later and someone said the first part was from the point of view of a developmentally disabled man, I saw its brilliance. Kids should not just be handed Huck Finn and left to their own devices. It is too powerful for that. But if you simply change the name of Jim to Slave Jim, and drop the word Injun from Joe, then you simply have a story about a boy floating on a raft who has adventures, and the book is so much more important than that. But my wife taught 9th graders Shakespeare a long time ago, and all the “tups” and such were expurgated, and the kids hated it. So, if they change Huck Finn, maybe students will hate it, too. Pity.

    • Josh Hanagarne January 6, 2011, 3:38 pm

      Frank, The Sound and The Fury kicked my butt as a 20 year old who wanted to read “hard” books. I went back to it two years ago and loved it. I wouldn’t call it an enjoyable read, personally, but I can admire the achievement that book is. WF could write!

  • rox January 6, 2011, 3:31 pm

    I feel the same as frank roberts (above)…there are some books I read in high school that meant a lot more to me as an adult. I agree that context is so important plus life experience helps too. I enjoyed The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck much more as an adult than a freshman in high school. So Huckleberry Finn might just as well be best saved for adults anyway.

  • Boris January 6, 2011, 3:36 pm

    Some literature, to be appreciated, requires maturity and wisdom. I don’t think there’s anything wrong necessarily with having sterilized “modern” versions of classics, but I think there’s a lot of lessons that go hand in hand with reading them as they were written.

    Shooing racism under the table, pretending it doesn’t exist (or never did) doesn’t get rid of it.

    I don’t think most schools read Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn here, and I think that’s fine, but I hope the reason they aren’t including it in the curriculum isn’t that they are afraid of the language (and the discussion).

    • Josh Hanagarne January 6, 2011, 3:38 pm

      Boris, remind me, which age do you teach again?

      • Boris January 6, 2011, 8:53 pm

        High school.

  • Seth January 7, 2011, 12:19 am

    i think there is a fine line to this. Because Twain is my favorite author I feel that his works, when read and taught, should be as they were originally. On the other hand I understand how someone young could be shocked by the use of that word, although considering how much kids use it in high school, in a totally different way, I’m not sure how they could be overly offended.

    I’m not sure what the solution is. Maybe let kids opt into the other version, or like they said above, don’t teach it till high school or above.

  • Julianne Fuchs-Musgrave January 7, 2011, 7:24 am

    It is heartening to read the comments that have come before me. I saw the article about the “revised” edition as I was on my way to my weekly literacy tutoring gig. Any censorship enrages me–always. Whether it be removing materials from shelves or revising (read sanitizing) existing texts. During the tutoring session I was paired with a 7th grade African-American boy, whose assignment was to begin reading To Kill a Mockingbird. He and his classmates had been given no introduction to the book, but instructed to read the first two chapters and be prepared to talk about it in the next class. I was acutely aware of all the implications. To this child, I know I emanated “Old White Woman.” Due to the nature of this tutoring group, it is probable I will never work with this student again. There was much less than an hour to discuss the book. The book, one I hold in my top ten pieces of great writing, but a book that clearly illuminates the racism and classism of early 20th century America.
    First, I asked him about his teacher and his English class. Then, I took the approach of explaining what I felt about the book and its author. That I knew it was a hard story to tell, but that I had always felt Harper Lee was working to tell the truth. The truth about all the people she knew, and the truth about the pain they caused each other through ignorance. I told him that the message she gave me had to do with the lessons of compassion, and honor that are learned by the character Scout from her father. I finished by telling him that I knew there were many parts of the book that would be hard to read, but that sometimes reading difficult things makes us stronger.
    I frankly don’t believe you can disguise or ameliorate the horror of racism by eliminating the “n’ word. I do absolutely believe we do a disservice to both young people and to ourselves as teachers if we assume we can’t find the courage to discuss it together.
    Sadly, Twain wouldn’t be a bit surprised.

  • disorderlywords January 7, 2011, 8:13 am

    If we begin santizing works of fiction, where do we stop? The word “Injun” in Huckleberry Finn is just as offensive to another segment of the population, as are other terms used in other books to describe Native Americans, Hispanics, women, the Irish, the Germans, people from the Middle East, and people with disabilities. (That list could go on, by the way.)

    The bigger question is: By santizing works that make powerful social statements, are we depriving readers of opportunities to engage in rational, responsible discussion about how mankind arrived at where it is? Although the adventure in Huckleberry Finn is what draws kids to the book, the themes and social commentary ultimately are what readers, even young ones, remember. If Huckleberry Finn appeared to give readers permission to fling the n-word about with reckless abandon, I could understand the urge to expunge the term — but clearly that’s not the case.

    If Huckleberry Finn had been written by a black author, would anyone suggest removing the n-word? Probably not, because the author’s cultural context would play into readers’ understanding of the book from the outset. What about the word “cracker,” which can be offensive to Southern whites depending upon who writes or speaks it.

    These are enormous issues, and I can’t help thinking that by attempting to avoid offense, we’re perpetuating the underlying social divisiveness. Language is one of the most powerful reflections of the times that spawned it. By changing words in classic literature, we’re doing a disservice not only to the author, but also to readers. As authors, we have to worry that our careful vocabulary choices may offend someone somewhere someday, and that hobbles our ability to engage readers on a deeper level.

  • Susan Garvey January 7, 2011, 8:53 am

    Isn’t part of teaching, both discussing the literature but also the teaching of the historical context in which it was written? I agree that the offensive word being removed is hateful, horrible and has no place in a book written during our particular time in history, for its own reasons. But to “Clean up” classic books that have much to teach, doesn’t really educate. Teaching books like this give a way to describe the broader picture of history and can serve to help to explain why it is so awful to use racist and demeaning terms in our current times.

  • Lorne Marr January 7, 2011, 1:13 pm

    Even though the novel contains the offensive words they refer to something which used to be part of our history. So if they decide to erase this part of the book how will we avoid repeating the same mistakes in the future?

  • Jack Stanton January 8, 2011, 12:59 am

    While I do not use the word ni… is there any real difference made by assigning the letter N to represent it? So now a Mark Twain scholar, Dr. Alan Gribben, has released a sanitized version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, replacing the N word with slave. I would think that Slave is just as offensive, but perhaps not. By nature I have a real aversion to censorship and political correctness. Censorship and political correctness are an intrusion on liberty. To cut to the chase, it is wrong to tamper with any authors’ work. If The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not appropriate for grade school children, do not include it in the curriculum

  • Jodi Kaplan January 9, 2011, 7:03 am

    Thought I commented on this, maybe not.

    Anyway, while the word is offensive, how can we learn from history if we sanitize it? Something similar happened in the Congress recently – they read the Constitution out loud – but left out the disagreeable parts.

    By the way, that lightning bug quote is a favorite of a friend of mine too (he’s got it on his blog). He’s also got Twain’s face tattooed on his arm.

    • Josh Hanagarne January 10, 2011, 6:05 pm

      First time I’ve heard of a Twain tattoo.

  • Todd@Phitzone January 12, 2011, 7:48 am

    While I don’t use the word, I think that revising the language is a slippery slope. What’s next? What other things that some find offensive will be censored out in order to not hurt somebody’s little feelers? No, sir, I don’t like it. Not one bit.

  • EOW JR January 14, 2011, 5:30 am

    I, lucky kid, went to a progressive public school system. Huck Finn and Fahrenheit 451 were among the books that Level One English students read [i was in level two 🙁 ]

    I also happen to love the word n****r when it is used in comedy, yet i LOATHE the phrase “the N word”. Louis CK, a white comedian from Boston, has an excellent portion of his stand up special “Chewed Up” dedicated to this. I am sorry, but that is what i have chosen. Other people love this word as well, as witnessed by, well, many of the dark skinned persons i have ever had interactions with using it quite frequently [i am from a major east coast city]. To me, this debate is not about censorship, it appears to be an attempt to retroactively apologize to black Americans with a weird back-door strategy that will get the man who edited the book paid.

    Josh, your recommendation to simply Bump it to the college level is great.

    But i have a question that i hope someone can answer-
    What about Injun Joe? Yeah, no one ever talks about that word in the news.

    If anyone else touched on this in the comments, good work! There are too many for me to read at 0630 before i train my first client.

    • Josh Hanagarne January 14, 2011, 9:57 am

      I actually feel very similar. There’s a scene in The Wire where a snooty academic excuses himself from the table by saying “I have to tinkle.” The cops at the table laugh when he’s gone, and Bunny says “The man got to take a piss, whether he know it or not.” That’s how I feel when I say “The N Word,” but it’s still more comfortable for me than the alternatives.

      I’m a big fan of Louie.

  • cinderkeys January 14, 2011, 1:12 pm

    “Injun” has nothing on the N-word. As far as I know, it’s just a mispronunciation of “Indian,” and actual Native Americans use “Indian” themselves. If I’m missing some historical etymological context, y’all are welcome to fill me in.

  • Meryl Natchez January 23, 2011, 11:24 am

    N*gger and injun were simply common speech when Twain wrote. N*gger meant slave. A plantation owner might treat his slaves well, be justifiably proud of his n*ggers, but they were his niggers. N*gger was only pejorative in that a slave was less than fully human. In the same way, Indians were simply injuns. Huck cares deeply for Jim, and contrasting his behavior with that of those rapscallions the Duke and the Dauphin provides all the lesson in moral superiority he needs.

    To pretend that these words didn’t exist is equivalent to being a Holocaust denier, with the same effect. To mature as a nation means to acknowledge all the grimy truths of our past. The history of race in this country is an ugly history. But it is our history. And all of us chicks, hicks, twits, morons and retards need to recognize and learn from it the better to pursue happiness as one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

  • shanta April 25, 2011, 8:29 am

    i think it is the most beautiful story which i have read …………………………. 🙂

  • shanta April 25, 2011, 8:30 am

    i wish i woud be the protagonist of the novele ……………………………………… 😀