So have you guys heard about the new “N-Word Free Version” of Huckleberry Finn? Apparently Twain Scholar Alan Gribben (editor of the volume) got sick and tired of changing the word “nigger” to “slave” when he read the book aloud to his students, so he just went through with a red pen and adjusted it in the text. NewSouth thought this was a great idea and so the edition was born. Having already made a media splash as you can imagine (Publisher’s Weekly, CNN, Editor’s Weekly, and The New York Times being among more reputable sources), the book is currently available for kindle via amazon and is set to be on regular shelves February 1st.
What do I have to say about this?
Shit, Piss, Fuck, Cunt, Cock-sucker, Mother-fucker and Tits.
There, are we better now? Seriously, folks? We’re back to censoring literature? Never mind that the so-called “N Word” has a huge impact on the way audiences (of the time or modern) read the book, never mind that it opens a door to critical theory otherwise inaccessible to us, never mind that the average rapper can use the word about fifteen times a second and nobody seems to care. Nope. This is clearly a word too dirty, too scandalous, too dark (forgive the pun) to be used in our college classrooms.
Maybe it all hits a little close to home because efforts to censor my man Will have been attempted since he wrote and performed his plays back in Elizabethan England. If we can learn anything from history about literature it is that censorship simply doesn’t work. All it does is create a stir and cause quizzical students to wonder what exactly it is that they are missing and look up the real version of the book anyway. If an author, especially an author as celebrated as Twain, meant to use another word, he would have. It wasn’t like he didn’t have a grip on the English language. It wasn’t like he didn’t have Gribben’s alternative (the word “slave”) at his disposal. If he had meant the book to be read a different way, he would have written it differently. And we, as readers, need to respect that.
Gribben’s argument is that “nigger” was an acceptable slang word of Twain’s time whereas it is a shock to enlightened twenty-first century readers. It is needlessly vulgar and offensive to a modern audience and serves to turn readers away from the book rather than arousing critical interest. But isn’t any work of art a statement of the time in which it was written? Calling Twain a racist is like calling Austen an anti-feminist. How can these writers ascribe to beliefs that weren’t birthed until after their respective deaths? Would you re-write Mansfield Park to empower its women simply because the way they are treated by the men is shocking to a modern audience? Nobody would even think of it. Proverbial individual would be tarred, feathered, shot then stoned by the collective members of JASNA before he could say “Fanny Price”. So why, if we treat our literature as history, do contemporary editors feel the need to re-write it?
Failure to impress upon a class the importance of “The N Word” in reading Huckleberry Finn is a matter of bad teaching, not a matter of a book that needs to be changed. Just because it doesn’t fit into your neat little lesson plan does not give you license to change the literature. I respect your scholarship, Dr. Gribben, but how would you have ever written critical inquiries into Twain’s work if some editor had gone messing about with it before you even got your hands on it? Your book offends me, good sir, to the point where I feel the need to fling expletives in your face until they become unimpassioned words because, really, those words are only given power by those who chose to do so. By taking the words away, you are merely lending them more credence as something to be offended by.
Fuck this shit.