The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is my favorite of all the books I read in high school. I read it in my sophomore year English class. When I read Huck Finn, I read all the words, not just the “n-word.” So when I saw today’s news that Auburn English professor Alan Gribben and publisher NewSouth Books are releasing a version of the novel that uses the word “slave” instead of the usual word prefacing Jim’s name, I really wasn’t all that bothered.
Mr. Gribben and the publishers hope that making these changes will make the book more accessible in schools because the questionable language has led some (Or many? I don’t know, I went to a private school and that, plus being nine years removed from high school, I really don’t follow public education) schools to ban it and parents to complain.
The real problem is the banning or–probably more common and equally deleterious–just avoiding in schools of one of the greatest books in American literature if not the English language by a great writer and social commenter. Banning or shying away from books, science, history and other information because of the fear of controversy or the focus of the material (think people who complain about reading things written by dead white men or studying Western-centered history) is not just spineless, but anti-intellectual. People and students especially must think for themselves even if they may be offended. Don’t put down the scholars and publishers, put down the schools and other people that took the original book out of the classroom in the first place.
So what does substituting the word “slave” into Huck Finn do to the work. In messing with Twain’s original language, it changes his intended meanings and themes. While some of the chatter on Twitter and the rest of the Internet criticizes the move as an eraser of sorts to racist language, the fact remains and is even intensified with a frequent reminder that Jim was a slave in the United States–that the United States was a slave-holding nation for the first eighty-nine years of its existence. Beyond the word in question (I am avoiding typing it out because I too fear my own words being taken out of context, especially now in a “cut and paste” world), the book is filled with plenty to get Twain’s point across. Mr. Clemens was able to express his themes and story with far more than one word. It’s not like the name n-word Jim is being changed to Content-in-his-bondage Jim. When students read the whole book, they should pick up on it. For them to do that, they have to be able to read it.
I believe in free speech almost to an absolute point. I believe in the free access to and exchange of ideas. This is not a free speech issue. In fact the publication of Mr. Gribben’s book is precisely what free speech allows. This is one edition by one publisher. No one is proposing to require all publishers to clean up the book. The original will still be available and will probably be even more popular now that the discussion has been reprised. It is an academic issue. Perhaps the existence of the n-word-free edition will prompt students to question why they are reading a book different from the original text. That information must not be withheld from them.