Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Huck Finn Edited

As I'm sure many of you have heard, a new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, will be coming out in February. The new edition is receiving quite a lot of press attention because its editor, Professor Alan Gribbins of Auburn University, has replaced the "n word" with "slave" throughout the text. He believes it will allow students and teachers to experience the text without the hindrance of that taboo word. Many parents complain about the "n word" in Huck Finn, and as a result, it is often not taught in schools. Gribbins believes his version will allow teachers to teach more freely, without parental objection.

This post from the Huffington Post offers interesting commentary on the issue, and this story from NPR includes an interview with Professor Gribbins and thoughts from listeners who fall on both sides of the issue.

Gribbins makes it clear that he explains his choice to replace the "n-word" in his introduction to the new version. The NPR interview also addresses the issue of whether teachers will explain what has been done to the text while they are teaching the book. Also, he explains that he is not recommending use of this new version across the board, but for certain educational settings. For higher level critical work of the text, he states that an original text should be used.

I find myself a little bit torn about this issue. Mostly, I believe that Twain's work should not be altered or watered-down in any way. The language that he uses is an accurate portrayal of life on the Mississippi River at that time. It reveals the prejudice and racism of the time, which is something that we cannot ignore or push aside. I read Huck Finn in my high school English class, and don't remember any controversy about the language. Of course, we knew the word was offensive, but we understood how it was being used in the context of the book. Maybe there was a commotion about it that the students didn't see. However, from where I sat, we read the book because it was an important part of American literary and cultural history.

On the other hand, I understand that this is not necessarily the case at every school. Some students simply don't read Huck Finn because the teachers or parents are unwilling to deal with the issues associated with Twain's use of the "n word". In those cases, would it not be better for students to have some experience with Twain's masterpiece, even if it is censored? Which is worse? Twain without the "n word" or no Twain at all? I don't know the answer.

I fear that with the availability of this new, less threatening text, some teachers will chose it even if they would have taught Huck Finn anyway. It's the path of least resistance for some, but it becomes a slippery slope.

I'm very interested in hearing your thoughts on the issue. Did you read Huck Finn as a student? Were there any protests? Do you think the new version is a good idea? Do you think it is better than nothing? Was "slave" the best choice for a replacement? Please share your opinions in the comments.


Han said...

I didn't read it as a student - I read Shakespeare and Steinbeck. Then again I'm a book work and read more than my class added together I think! Anyhoo Mark Twain was writing at a certain time and certain things - if you get me. Surely it's like tweaking Jane Austen, Charles Dickens or Shakespeare to better fit today

Caitlin said...

I agree that Twain wrote at a particular time, and to alter his words would be, in some ways, to remove his works from their contexts. There was an interesting discussion in the NPR story about whether or not it was still Twain if a few of the words have been changed.

And it suddenly just occurred to me to wonder about foreign language translations. What do they do about context specific words like the "n word"? Are they able to convey the same meaning? I might have to look into that.

Aidan Donnelley Rowley @ Ivy League Insecurities said...

I loved this book and I am not sure how I feel about this, but I commend you for tackling this complicated subject. Great post.

Caitlin said...

Thanks Aidan! I don't know the answer either, but I enjoy struggling with the question.