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.