On Censoring Huck Finn (seriously?)

Mark Twain on Huck Finn:

"A book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat." - Notebook #35 (reprinted in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Univ. of California Press, 2003)

An Alabama publisher will be releasing an altered version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where certain objectionable words will be replaced with placeholders. We'll get to the others in the postscript, but lets start with the most egregious. The 215 (!) uses of the word 'nigger,' are to be replaced by the word 'slave.'

Just think about the two words. 'Nigger' is specific. When a white person says it, it hits like a crack of the whip. We all know what that word means, who it refers to, and what its implications are about American society and racial attitudes past and present. But slave? 'Nigger' reveals of its user a powerful, institutionalized hatred and a complicity with the evils of Southern society. Slave does not. 'Slave' certainly implies dehumanization, but the word doesn't refer to one specific type, era, or object of chattelry. In today's modern culture, 'slave' just as equally calls to mind indentured servitude in the Roman Empire as it does contemporary sex trafficking in Eastern Europe and Russia.

So what you're doing is taking a specific and awful human experience and subsuming it into a still evil but more broadly drawn human condition. And to do that, you have to minimize the impact of history.

When you change the word 'nigger' to 'slave,' it's not just political correctness run amok. It's second guessing the aesthetic choice of the original author. Changing that word does not in any way change the theme, the meaning, the overall point of the novel. But it does harm its authenticity. Changing that word would have us believe that somehow Huck is a magical being in Mississippi who managed not to be raised with the same values and patterns of speech that everyone else in his social class was. Changing that word undermines the aesthetic authority of the author. Changing that word fundamentally undermines the poignance of Huck's journey and eventual enlightenment.

You are taking a story about how one boy learns that love and friendship are more important than the expectations of society, no matter how much cultural and legal pressure that particular society places on him. These internal conflicts make Huck Finn who he is; they make him complex, dynamic, and eternally memorable. But to do that, you have to show that he is part of the society. The transformation is hollow if he is already born somehow 'better' than everyone else; enlightened without any experience to justify that knowledge.


1. As for correcting "injun" to "Indian." Again an aesthetic voice. The author chose to depict the dialectic form of the word. It's the way they pronounce it, for godssakes. And still do, in the South. Correcting this is like correcting all usage of the word 'ain't.'

2. And as for changing "half-breed" to "half-blood." Are you kidding me? That word is plastered through all seven books of that other beloved children's series: Harry Potter. Who says it? The racist Malfoys and their flunkies. These words are intended to shock us. We are meant to feel the full impact of their use. It gives us context for a world in which hatred and intolerance were ingrained into the very psyche, and to pretend that didn't trickle down into language is a fallacy.

3. At the end of the day, it is not the word that offends us. It's the entire sensibility of dehumanization. If you are offended by the word, you are missing the point.

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2 Responses to “ On Censoring Huck Finn (seriously?) ”

  1. I agree. The story should exist in context, too. If you forget what the world was like at the time of the story, you forget what it's trying to tell you about that world. You can't look at a book from the 19th century with only the life you have known in the 20th and/or 21st centuries. So much has changed, from attitudes about human beings of all classes, races, etc. to the way we speak and write about them.

    But to forget the lessons of the past is to forget the failures that lead to more terrible things for humanity. If we purify the stories that reveal a slice of historical context to us, what comes next? Purify the history textbooks entirely. It's not a far leap. If everyone grows up not learning about something, what is learned? The pain of so many sufferers would be for nothing.

    I'll take my books with at least the truths the authors put into them, thanks.

    -- Peter

  2. Sadly it seems that many people would like to change remembered history.

    But fundamentally that's not even the point. The job of an author is to convincingly place you in a world without judgment or malice, and leave it to the reader to interpret the circumstances how he will.

    It's a matter of trust between the author and the reader.


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