Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Huck Finn Goes PC...

I'm cross. I mean, I found it bad enough when Enid Blyton was modernised in case children these days didn't understand certain words. But this is worse...

Censorship in my opinion.

In an updated edition, the powers that be have determined that the word 'nigger' should no longer feature in Huckleberry Finn. It will be replaced with 'slave'.

It's not a nice word, I will concede. It has been used in an appalling manner. It is derogatory in most cases of usage, and shows off a period of history that none of us should be proud about.


Huckleberry Finn was first published in 1884. In those times the 'n' word was used. The word 'injun' was also used (something else they are planning to update). It showcases a particular part of history, and to sanitize that is to almost deny that it took place. I genuinely think children (and adults!) should acknowledge the way that we behaved against black people, so that history never repeats itself.

Where is our courage? Why would we change a work that has remained as is for over a hundred years, just because 'nigger' makes people feel uncomfortable?

What is your take? Censorship or a necessary evil?


  1. Censorship.

    Just because you'd like the world to be different, doesn't mean it is. (Or was.)

    Similarly, those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. I doubt if Huck Finn is the source of all racial strife we experience in modern times, and I don't think the removal of that one word will usher in a new age of racial peace and harmony.

    Maybe having a first-hand account of racism from 100 plus years ago will make children aware of how the same attitudes persist today, in some form or another, and are just as silly and wrong-headed as they were back then.

  2. Definitely censorship. The work exists. It reflects the jargon of the day.
    One of the points of the story is that Huck is not a racist in spite of the overwhelming social pressure he finds. His "good heart" leads him out of his bad socialization.

  3. Censorship.

    Everyone seems to treat Huck Finn as a lighthearted children's novel. It's not. There's plenty of humor and many entertaining scenes, but the book is about a boy who learns that slavery is wrong, despite what society has told him. The n-word is uncomfortable, even painful, for modern readers--but maybe that's a good thing. Jim, Huck's friend, leads a deeply unpleasant life. He's discriminated against on every level. The terminology is a part of that. I doubt many modern readers can see the n-word without flinching; without feeling for Jim and resolving to do better. It's a shameful part of history, but it did happen. If we gloss over it, what will we exclude next?

  4. The word's 'nigger' and 'slave' are not interchangeable. Whoever has made this decision deserves to have the word 'context' explained to them in great detail and then have that great detail tattooed all over his/her body. And head. This is shocking. And I'm outraged. Well, not outraged, but I am cross.

  5. I vote censorship.

    There are so many great lessons that Huck Finn can be used to teach as it is written. Editing a book just to change a word is messing with the integrity of the book.

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  7. Dear God do I loathe censorship.
    I can't even begin to think of anyone who could be offended by the word 'nigger' in a book that was written over a century ago. As you say, it reflects a social era that we should be ashamed of. All the more reason for it to stay. Turning a blind eye to the mistakes of the past and pretending they never happened is to deny responsibility. If future generations read Huck Finn and never see the word 'nigger', they won't inquire as to its meaning and inso doing deny themselves an understanding of the changing values in society from emancipation to the civil rights movement. Censorship sucks.

  8. I vote neither: foolishness. It's a trait that the author, Mark Twain would have both readily recognized and deplored nearly as much as censorship.

    Though the desire to remove a barrier might seem laudable, barriers aren't always best removed when it comes to literature. Should Moby-Dick have its biblical references removed to enable modern day readers who lack a literary scriptural background to forge ahead without barriers - Call me Frank, anyone?

    Better to have a competent teacher who can help lift those who stumble and a knowledge of history sufficient to allow readers to tell now from then.

    Good books *should* make us feel uncomfortable at times, about the book, about the world's many injustices, and about ourselves. Fences are meant to be jumped.

    Anything else would be just plain foolish and I have no doubt Huck and his creator would have agreed.


  9. Good lord, that's pathetic. Honestly, if people can't handle reading a historical novel in a historical context and drawing their own conclusions from it...

    I wrote a post about book censorship and banning a while back, and racism was one of the issues I addressed. In a nutshell, I'd commented that by erasing all references to racism in historical novels, one is erasing a bit of the past that we can all learn from, and creating generations of people who have absolutely no idea why people complain about racism today. They have no basis for comparison, to see what has improved and what hasn't, and I'm sorry, but losing that perspective is not a fair trade for avoiding ruffling a few feathers.

    Ugh, that makes me sad and disgusted.

  10. Agreed, Tea and Tomes--I also think that erasing the past makes it more difficult for us to learn from it.

  11. This business is more complicated than some of the initial ‘net coverage implies. The article suggests that the editorial team is cutting out ‘nigger’ (also, ‘injun’, and I’ll come back to that in a moment) and replacing it with ‘slave’ in order to get the book into classrooms. Teachers would like to use the book but ‘nigger’ is such a pejorative word in the US, they just can’t use it(and here we have to bear in mind that parents’ groups often have extraordinary levels of control over what schools and local libraries provide, in a way that would seem unthinkable in the UK, where I’m writing from).

    So, we’re left with an ethical dilemma in which tacit censorship (simply not using the book at all) is being fought by expurgation (which is a sanitising form of censorship, removing words and pretending they weren’t there in the first place). Is it better not to teach a book at all or to be able to teach some version of it and at least alert people to its existence? I honestly don’t know. I’d argue from a philosophical point of view that neither of these is pure censorship, which I would see as the banning of a book, a refusal to allow it to be published or distributed, removal from bookshelves, etc. Though this does not make the issue any easier to get a grip on. I want to say that some is better than none, but I find it difficult to wholeheartedly embrace that argument. However, I’m in a position to be able to find it difficult. Not everyone is.

    In fact, expurgation isn’t that uncommon; it’s sometimes called ‘abridgement’ instead. Editors and publishers have been at it ever since Harriet Bowdler first got her hands on Shakespeare and started changing the rude words and the words no one understood (though her brother, Thomas Bowdler got the blame/credit when he published it in 1818). When I was a child I read cut-down versions of the classics, for story, and came to full versions later (though I early on decided I was always going to have the whole thing if I could possibly help it).

    In the end, I don’t think it is so much about censorship, ignorance, foolishness or anything else as about the relationship between great swathes of the US and this book, built on a long and troubling history of slavery and denial of civil rights that the US is still struggling to come to terms with. And ‘nigger’ is a really difficult word for a lot of Americans to deal with, to even say. When I was taking a module in US literature about five years ago, we inevitably covered stories which used ‘nigger’ and the American exchange students in the class literally could not bring themselves to say it out loud. In the end, I did (I was a mature student; it was easier for me to do it), just because I couldn’t bear it that the word’s existence wasn’t being acknowledged, not when it was an intrinsic part of what was being discussed, and the collective shock on their faces was instructive.

    There’s actually another issue lurking in this too, one I’ve not yet seen taken up, and that’s changing ‘injun’ to ‘slave’. That’s not just sanitising, it’s plain in accurate. Plantation owners originally brought in African slaves because they found it practically impossible to enslave the local Native American populations. Instead, they variously exterminated them over several hundred years. Twain’s book is set in the mid-to-late 1830s, in Mississippi, at a point when the local tribe, the Choctaw, was forced off its ancestral lands (similar forced removals were going on in other states, most notably the Cherokee in Georgia and elsewhere), the plan being to push Native Americans west of the Mississippi, leaving the eastern states for the Anglo Americans. I don’t actually recall Twain touching on this issue (it’s been a while since I read the book), but for the editors to transform ‘injun’ into ‘slave’ is to effectively remove another element of US history.

    Which brings us back to the beginning. Instinctively, I feel what they're doing is wrong, but, but, but ... it is far more complicated than that.


  12. I'd really like to hear a black American reader's view on this. The word in question doesn't have any power to be used against me, but some people, it does, and they have more right to comment.

    I like Paper Knife's comment, though - and I do think research is required before we go all 'omg they're trying to censor us' - this is only to be used in some schools. And the unedited version is still available everywhere, even for free on the internet on Gutenberg.

    Then again if people care so much about teaching about race in schools that they'll create a totally new version of an old book, maybe they'd be better off spending that time teaching more literature BY black Americans, instead!

  13. @Paper Knife

    It is of course more complicated, life generally is and good literature almost always so.

    That's why I think cries of censorship are misplaced. That said, it's a foolish, wrongheaded idea and I'd much rather see the publishers spearheaded an effort to encourage teachers and school boards to stand up for good literature, whatever reactionary groups or misinformed individuals might say.

    Banned and/or challenged books aren't exactly a new thing.
    There are a large number of people in the US who are violently opposed to science, especially evolution, and school boards are constantly embroiled in the struggle to keep science, well, science in their classrooms. Where a compromise has been struck, in the way of including equal time for religious creationism and its even more misleading named version known as "intelligent design," the results have been a watering down of real science and the inclusion of religious teaching in what is intended to be a secular institution. Litigation, heated arguments, and damage done to both science and religion, has been the general result.

    Similarly, there is (and has to a certain degree since its founding) a powerful undercurrent in the US which all but praises ignorance and mistrusts knowledge. We can see the political flowering of this in the Tea Party movement.

    I think it is important to always send a message that truth, historical fidelity, and great books are more important than people's (possibly) misguided sentiments - especially as I know very well that many young people do use this word, in a much less pejorative though still racially charged manner. Surely, with a few simple explanations by a competent and sensitive teacher, its use in the book in question can easily be put in context.

    I would suspect perhaps, that the publishers of this version might be hoping that they could sell more copies - and are less worried that something might be lost in translation.


  14. Totally agree with everything written here. It's a worrying trend that books are now being re-written to hide the ugly bits of society in the same way history often is.

    What is puzzling is that at the moment there are a large selection of modern books that tackle with ethnic awakening in society, many of them British. Will these be re-written in the future to paint a rosey picture of ethnic harmony in Britain?

  15. I wouldn't really mind if someone published the PC version of Huck Finn. It's not my book to object to in the first place. But any idiot who would consider buying such a book should first get their head examined.

  16. What I don't understand why the book needs to be bowdlerized to be taught. Doesn't the original version provide discussion topics in spades? Apart from the literature classes you could do on it in English, you could do related classes on it in History and Government classes etc. Have teachers coordinate it together and have a project/theme thing. Why do people insist on hiding these kinds of things from children instead of using them to teach? It's not as if by not letting them see it, they be confronted by it elsewhere, be it in their everyday life, on tv or on the internet.

    Added to that, I think Huckleberry Finn is a classic and you don't mess with classics. I mean we're not redacting the Odyssee, Beowulf or Chaucer are we?

    p.s. I know I'm late commenting, just wanted to add my two cents :)

  17. 'you don't mess with classics. I mean we're not redacting the Odyssee, Beowulf or Chaucer are we?'

    Yes. Yes we have. And do. And will continue to do. Those are very bad examples with which to make your point.

    One thing people have got to get past is the idea that there can be only one version of a text!

    This Huck Finn publication is just one version, for a specific purpose, in one state where those kids might not get to study the book otherwise. What's the fuss?

    A text is not some inviolable thing, texts change and grow and change back again. True classics survive that, and are even enhanced by it.

  18. Can you imagine being scared of saying a word? Of reading two syllables out loud?

    That's censorship. Right?

    Finn will survive this. He's been through a lot already.