Publisher Announces Intention to Edit Huckleberry Finn To Remove N-Word

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are widely viewed as an American classic. However, the editors of NewSouth Books have decided that they need to do some editing. The editors have decided to remove the “n” word from the book and replace it with “slave.” The editing of a classic raises very troubling questions from the right of an author to have his works remain unchanged to the integrity of literary and historical works. Like all great works, the book must be read with an understanding of the mores and lexicon of its time.

This offense against the original work is being lead by Alan Gribben, who insists that he is merely updating the work. Classic works, however, do not need updating. Gribben decision to improve on Twain’s work for contemporary readers is a breathtaking act of hubris. A vast array of classic and contemporary works use the n-word and other offensive language. If Gribben wants a work without offensive language, he should write The Adventures of Alan Gribben.

Gribben appears to think the following quote from Huckleberry Finn was something of an invitation by Twain:

“Please take it,” says I, “and don’t ask me nothing – then I won’t have to tell no lies.”

Replacing this word with “slave” can change the meaning and certainly the intent of Twain. Consider the following line:

“Oh, yes, this is a wonderful govment, wonderful. Why, looky here. There was a free nigger slave there from Ohio – a mulatter, most as white as a white man. He had the whitest shirt on you ever see…

The difference may be subtle but Twain clearly could have used slave. The word existed at the time. Twain chose the n-word to convey something beyond captive status. It was a word used widely. It is still used in literary works to say something about the people who use it.

Other authors like William Faulkner used this word in capturing the culture of the South. Consider the following passage from Go Down, Moses (1940):

This delta, he thought: This Delta. This land which man has deswamped and denuded and derivered in two generations so that white men can own plantations and commute every night to Memphis and black men own plantations and ride in jim crow cars to Chicago to live in millionaires’ mansions on Lakeshore Drive, where white men rent farms and live like niggers and niggers crop on shares and live like animals, where cotton is planted and grows man-tall in the very cracks of the sidewalks, and ursury and mortgage and bankcruptcy and measureless wealth, Chinese and African and Aryan and Jew, all breed and spawn together until no man has time to say which is which nor cares…. No wonder the ruined woods I used to know don’t cry for retribution! He thought: The people who have destroyed it will accomplish its revenge.

Would we rewrite Faulkner as well? How about all of the modern movies and books using this term as part of modern urban speech? Authors write to capture characters who are often racist or living in racist times. This publisher may billed itself as the “NewSouth” but this book was written about the Old South. To sanitize history or literature is an act of violence against the artistic work of these authors.

I find the editing of a great literary work to be nothing short of shameful and shocking, but views can differ on such a question. I would be interested in the views of others on the blog.

Source: EW and Reddit

Jonathan Turley

140 thoughts on “Publisher Announces Intention to Edit Huckleberry Finn To Remove N-Word”

  1. Well put Kristy and no your not wrong at all as your opinion is just as valid as anyone’s , never forget that. The word was in the story that was written for the times and what it was meant. it something that in my opinion should be left as it is as if its changed then it alters the reality of the story. You don’t change art because because its art and if its offensive don’t look. Same holds true for books. You have to understand that when it was written and the import behind it and how it was accepted. There is much more out there that is offensive in so many ways that far out strip anything that Mark Twain ever wrote..Go after that and leave the classics alone as history is history, what we did and why for the time and not to be changed to suite what we think today, as then its no longer becomes valid history but history to suit our thinking which is wrong on so many levels.

  2. I’m probably wrong, I’m only 15. My intention isn’t to hurt any feelings! Peace to all!

  3. I don’t think they should sugarcoat this word. What about other hurtful words for other people? Soon it will be an excuse to change what shouldn’t be changed. Also, if kids aren’t taught that this word is bad, they won’t know in the future: I would hate to see people use the n word in the future, we need to learn from our mistakes. What if this book was written by an African American man? Would that make a difference?

  4. This reminds me of Fahrenheit 451. I wonder how much longer until books like Huckleberry Finn are just burned.

  5. I find the movement to edit Mark Twain’s classic work, Huckleberry Finn very offensive and morally wrong for multiple reasons. Firstly, it is disrespectful and disgraces the author, obstructing his original intellect on the time and altering the writing of a man who is not alive to defend himself or his choice of words. Also, use of the N word in classic Southern literature, while it may be offensive to some, particularly African Americans, it is an essential aspect of human history. It is important that we understand how far our society has come and how we have changed. It is important that we not forget the past, lest we make the same blunders in the future. Books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn teach us about our past, something that is so very vital to our world today; you can’t change it. You can only learn from it, and it is best that that time is portrayed as accurately as possible.

  6. She’s only 4’8″ Blouise.

    But she grows a couple of feet in all directions when she’s mad at me!

  7. Maaarrghk!
    1, January 7, 2011 at 3:24 pm

    Blouise. If I were to catch a Nurse, my wife would kill her. Believe me, that would make Nursey the lucky one out of the two of us.


    Are you suggesting she could teach Dick Cheney a thing or two about torture? I say that positively for I know I could!

  8. Thanks for sharing your most excellent sense of humour with me Brian.

    But alas, the hyphen is an endangered species and I must do what I can to save the last few from being used up in useless phrases like “n word” as I now prefer to spell it, (purely in the interests of conservation).

    Blouise. If I were to catch a Nurse, my wife would kill her. Believe me, that would make Nursey the lucky one out of the two of us.

  9. Sometimes my “straight-man” to “straight-man” humor stumbles into a bottomless pit. Pity that.

    I hoped my response to

    “Can some of you please stop using the term “n word”.

    I find it offensive.”

    might make it moreso noticed…

    besides, it is mis-spelled.

    I never learnt my ebonics very good, but the correct spelling is, as I learnt:


    Not that it matters, and perhaps I am mistaken.

    Bedtime. Let’s went.

  10. Thank you all for the positive thoughts … I will put them all to good use.

  11. Maaarrghk!
    1, January 6, 2011 at 1:48 am

    Can some of you please stop using the term “n word”.

    I find it offensive.


    I got your humor and thought it was pretty clever 🙂


    My hubby wouldn’t dare chase a nurse … if he caught one, the shock would kill him!

  12. RE:

    “Out of interest, do you find your condition effects how you see humour?”

    Life would be a joke were it no so serious that it can only be joked about.

    I am able to understand both humor and humor, just as I am able to understand math and maths.

    It is one thing to understand something and another to tell what is understood.

    I live my life as though I am an improv method actor in the theatre of the surd.

    Autistic humour? The “dah-dit_word”?

    You may call me anything, including late to dinner.

    When the symbol becomes as though what it symbolizes, so that what is symbolized is inconsequential, I find myself living in a joke world, the joke being that the joke is purely imaginary.

    When the trauma of people who have been denigrated by racist hatred becomes symbolized by a trauma-describing word and the trauma ignored, with only the symbol remaining in the public consciousness, then when the symbol itself is also erased from the public consciousness, to me, it is as though the people and their lives have been retroactively deleted.

    In such a world, I shall not abide.

    I have long observed that some people are as though incapable of accepting and understanding the traumas of their own lives, while being unable to totally erase said traumas. For such folks, doing the best possible in their actual life circumstances, pretending away the traumas of other people may be the only form of mercy to be found. With such folks, I find no fault, as I find no fault with anyone.

    Of course, I allow that my not finding any fault with any person, regardless of the details of the person’s life, may cause people “to blow fuses” if they were taught to blame themselves for not knowing what they were never given the actual chance to learn; and struggle with such inner trauma as to hate by projection anyone who has been able to assimilate trauma without denying it or passing it on.

    So, the way in which I am autistic would, were I to openly show how I understand the tragicomedy of humanity, plausibly soon end the comedy that I herewith live. So, I play the fool, as any court jester seeking survival surely does. My being a fool makes that role so easy for me; it comes naturally…

    Yes, my sense of humour may be so subtle that even I don’t get it. On reflecting into the depths of my being, I find that my hidden (especially from me) intent may have been to model the absurdity of taking away a purportedly offensive word as though so doing would take away the actual offence of racial hatred.

    Seriously, seriously really, thanks for asking.

    On! Why does my computer spell checker keep telling me that I have misspelled “humour” and “offence” and “theatre”?

    Now, I can understand my computer’s objecting to “dah-dit” because that is an offensive letter.

    So, I live in Door Couty, in the State of Wiscosi, in the Ited States of America, ad, like others who live i the Orth America Cotiet. I am a America. Like those other Orth Americas, who live in Caada or in Estados Uidos Mexicaos…

    Where are the pliers? I eed to remove that offecive key from my computer keyboard.

    Forgive my offecive use of the dah-dit word opely just this oce. Imagie how much better life will be when parents can ever say “No!” ever agai, but merely say O to their icalcitrat childre.

    Better yet, why keep letters at all? Lets get rid of all of them. Without letters to spell words, would any words still exist? Without words, would we be without error?

    Perhaps I will fit the future better, a future that people live without thoughts shared with words; without the errors words impart? Easy for me to write without the “dah-dit” letter, but hard for others to read what is so wrote?

  13. Here’s an excerpt from Katherine Paterson’s “Cultural Politics from a Writer’s Point of View.” It was originally published in The New Advocate (Spring 1994). It was later reprinted in the book “Only Connect: Readings on Children’s Literature” (Third Edition, 1996). I assigned it as required reading for my children’s literature course.

    In the piece, Paterson, an award-winning children’s author, wrote about writers and censorship. She talks about Ray Bradbury and his book “Fahrenheit 451”:

    Ray Bradbury makes this point better than I. He takes the occasion to speak out against would-be censors from the left and the right in a coda written in 1979 for a new edition of his 1950 classic “Fahrenheit 451.” In this coda, Bradbury relates all the well-intentioned suggestions which he has received over the years from critics who wish he would make his various works more acceptable for today’s readers. Anyone who has read this particular book will immediately see the irony here. “Fahrenheit 451” is the temperature required to burn a book, and Bradbury’s book is the definitive fictional treatment of censorship. It escapes being labeled propaganda through powerful characterization and a point of view that manages to offend everyone who is against censorship but thinks a little tinkering with somebody else’s books is justified if the cause is good enough. And one’s own cause always is.

    Bradbury laments all the chopping and changing that earnest but misguided editors inflict on books in order to prevent them from offending anyone. And he concludes with this exhortation:

    “All you umpires, back to the bleachers. Referees, hit the showers. It’s my game. I pitch, I hit, I run the bases. At sunset I’ve won or lost. At sunrise, I’m out again, giving it the good old try.

    “And no one can help me. Not even you.”

    Paterson also wrote that the contents of her books are her responsibility. She said that she tries to be sensitive to the feelings of others—but claims that her first responsibility is to the story she is writing. She said she tries to come as close to the truth as she possibly can.

    Authors like Twain and Paterson attempt/attempted to depict the real world–not the world as we would like it to be. Some of the greatest works of adult and children’s literature have been highly challenged books.

    From the American Library Association:

    Banned and Challenged Classics

    Top ten most frequently challenged books of 2009

  14. “Twain himself was very particular about his words.”

    I believe (and am sure I’ll be corrected if wrong) that the n-word no longer has the same connotation that it did in Twain’s day, and the mere use of the word (by anyone other than people of color) is now a sign that the user is racist . If so, and accepting what others say that Twain’s intent was to skewer racism, would he have used the word if he were alive and writing the book today? (Or, if the word had today’s connotation when the book was written, would he have used it?)

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