Eliminating N-Word From Huck Finn Is “Profound Mistake,” Says Literary Scholar
Scholars are criticizing the decision; film versions have long sanitized the word.
Get ready for “ Extreme Makeover: Books.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, that staple of high school English classes everywhere, is getting a major facelift and not everyone is happy about it.
NewSouth Books, a well-respected small publisher in Alabama is coming out with a version that replaces “n----r” and “injun” with less charged alternatives like “slave.” "This is not an effort to render Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn colorblind," Alan Gribben, an Auburn University English Professor and editor of the new edition, told Publishers Weekly. "Race matters in these books. It's a matter of how you express that in the 21st century."
Other scholars disagree.
Harvard University Law Professor Randall Kennedy, the author of Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, called the change a “profound mistake” and compared it to painting fig leafs on nude statues. Kennedy pointed out that since teenagers hear the word often so in today’s music and movies its “a good discussion to have.”
Former Modern Language Association President and noted African-American literary scholar Houston Baker agreed, saying the change “diminished a classic work.” Baker praised The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for “capturing the extremely complicated dilemma of slavery and race in America.”
But cleaning up Huck Finn for younger audiences is not a new idea. University of Pittsburgh Literature Professor Jonathon Arac says in 1931 Twain’s original publisher introduced a sanitized version for junior high students that substituted in “negro,” the equivalent of using African American today.
That’s pretty much the course Hollywood has followed.
From the 1939 classic starring Mickey Rooney to the 1993 Disney version with Elijah Wood as Huck and Courtney B. Vance as Jim, film versions avoided the word and boiled the complicated racial story down to an adventure story aimed at younger audiences.
But as Houston Baker emphasized, “students need to encounter Huck Finn as Twain wrote the book” because “having them struggle with it” is what education is about.