Leave my ‘Huck Finn’ alone!

Heather Price-Wright

An English and philosophy professor at Auburn University in Alabama has edited a new edition of “”Huckleberry Finn”” to erase what he has decided is offensive language. Alan Gribben’s edition replaces more than 200 instances of the N-word with the word “”slave,”” and changes other racially charged language such as “”half-breed”” and “”Injun”” to less colorful, more politically correct terms.

This affront to American literature is, as UA English professor Charles Scruggs put it, eloquently and in true Mark Twain fashion, “”chicken shit.””

For one thing, as Scruggs and other scholars have pointed out, the use of slave in place of the N-word makes little sense. The words do not have anywhere near the same meaning or connotation. Moreover, in 1885, when “”Huckleberry Finn”” was published, slavery was illegal — though, as Scruggs notes, “”de facto”” systems of slavery still flourished in the Unites States. But Twain did not call Jim “”slave Jim”” throughout the book for incredibly specific reasons, reasons students will be robbed of discovering for themselves if they are offered Gribben’s scrubbed-up version.

Twain did not just use the N-word “”ironically,”” as some reductively suggest. “”The word … in the novel is very loaded and has different meanings depending on who is using it,”” Scruggs said. “”With Huck, it tends to take on a new meaning as his character develops.”” Huck’s use of the word contrasted with that of, say, Pap Finn, Huck’s drunken, abusive, racist father, provides an important juxtaposition in the novel. Tracing Huck’s use of the invective allows the reader to understand Huck’s emotional development, especially with reference to Jim, the runaway slave who becomes his closest friend. Removing the word strips away layers of meaning from the text, and leaves behind a comparatively bland narrative.

Scruggs compared reading “”Huck Finn”” without the offending language to a football player attempting to execute a play he has forgotten the name of: “”It’s like somebody running the pattern (in a football game) and the one guy has forgotten what the play is called and he runs off the field and knocks over the cheerleaders. It doesn’t make sense.””

This edition of “”Huck Finn”” marks a sad, cowardly act. But missing from the debate almost entirely is the acknowledgment that American students are only as uncreative and dumb as their instructors ask them to be. Gribben hopes his butchered version of an American classic will help students in high school and college engage with the text without being made to feel uncomfortable. But how insipid and lame does he think young people are?

Young readers want to be challenged, to be made uneasy and thrown off-balance by literature. Why read it, otherwise? If anything, high school and college students have much thicker skins than their elders when it comes to harsh, unsightly language. We’re hankering to interact with texts that are going to rock our worlds a little bit, and hopefully help us understand that world and our place in it in the process. Anyone who remembers reading “”Huck Finn”” or “”Tom Sawyer”” for the first time — the real novels, not some dumbed-down version — knows that Twain’s use of what feels like incendiary language makes the characters, the historical context and the emotional journeys in both books come to life. Twain knew what he was doing writing those words, and American students can be helped to understand how to read them.

When asked whether his students had trouble with the racial language used in Twain’s and others’ works, Scruggs said, “”I think they’re smarter than that.”” And he’s right; we are.

When it comes down to it, Gribben and his ilk can call it what they will, but censorship is censorship. Gribben would like to pretend that he is making literature safe, but his “”edits,”” like most attempts to clean up great literature, “”reduce human experience to a kind of tabula rasa, a blank slate,”” Scruggs said. Gribben’s sad attempt to improve Mark Twain has no place in American schools and, if anything, will only drive young people to want to read the uncensored texts all the more.

In that case, here’s hoping a whole new generation of American young people can enjoy the treat that is “”Huck Finn”” a little more, knowing some grown-up out there doesn’t want them to.

— Heather Price-Wright is the assistant arts editor at the Daily Wildcat. She can be reached at arts@wildcat.arizona.edu.