The “N-word” has become so emotionally charged that its casual use can end a career, as radio shrink Laura Schlessinger discovered the hard way last year. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to excise it from classic literature for fear of offending modern sensibilities.
Alan Gribben, an English professor at Auburn University, is working with NewSouth Books in Alabama to publish a joint edition of Mark Twain’s classics, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “Tom Sawyer,” in which the word “nigger” ― used 219 times in “Huck Finn” alone ― is replaced by the word “slave.” Other politically correct alterations include a name change for menacing villain Injun Joe (now he’s “Indian Joe”). Frankly, Scarlett, we give a darn about this kind of bowdlerism.
Gribben has a point when he says that many modern school districts and teachers are reluctant to put “Huck Finn” on the curriculum because of its liberal use of the offensive word. His goal is to broaden the book’s readership and acceptability by rendering it inoffensive. “Huck Finn” is No. 4 on the list of most-banned books in American schools, according to author Herbert N. Foerstal, and that’s a shame, but attempting to sanitize it isn’t the answer. Intelligent and sensitive discussion with students would be a better response.
Twain’s masterwork is a moving reflection of attitudes in the pre-Civil War South (and of its author’s postwar sensibilities, which were ahead of their time with regard to race but behind our own). It’s the struggle of a white youth, Huck, to reconcile his recognition of the humanity and equality of an escaped slave with the views of a society that considers him little better than an animal and uses epithets to describe him. The language, then, is very much part of the story and the history. Trying to protect students from the full ugliness of racism by softening that language does a disservice to them, and it’s all too easy to imagine the crimes against literature that would result if this kind of thing caught on. We hope nobody gives Gribben a copy of Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice,” because the Bard’s attitude toward Shylock the Jew was distastefully Elizabethan.