Early, ABS: ‘Huck Finn’ debate not just about slur

Clean version of Twain work shows race still thorny issue

| Contributing Reporter

NewSouth Books, an independent publishing company, is seeking to tame Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” by printing new editions of the classic novels omitting the N-word from narration and dialogue.

The company plans to substitute “slave” for the N-word, which appears 219 times in “Huck Finn.”

But this controversy is not just about the N-word. It implicates the underlying issue of race that is still a touchy subject in American society.

“The specific issue that you have here with the N-word is largely in relation to African-American readers who have always felt uncomfortable with that,” said Gerald Early, a professor of English at the Washington University.

Though not all African Americans take issue with “Huckleberry Finn,” Early said that many object to a young white character using the N-word to refer to an adult black male, although this was characteristic of the time.

“People might have felt differently if the main character was a black person, and the book was written by a black person, and they were using the N–word in a different kind of context,” Early said. “But you’d be seriously rewriting the book at that point.”

According to Early, the novel’s overall language has been criticized for being coarse and crude, and the N-word is only a small part of this larger issue. African-American readers in particular are offended by Twain’s childish portrayal of Jim, an escaped slave.

With or without the N-word, it is evident that “Huck Finn” will continue to spark considerable fire among its readers and critics.

Adam Abadir, president of the Association of Black Students, asserted that this controversy reveals that Americans today are still uncomfortable with race. According to Abadir, the N-word and its historical sentiments of degradation are a central part of our history. By removing this word from “Huck Finn,” NewSouth is draining the power and purpose of the book.

“What people are saying is, ‘I don’t want to be confronted with certain realities of our past. I’d rather smooth it over, pretend like it didn’t happen’—sanitize it if you will,” he said.

Though he disagrees with NewSouth’s efforts, Abadir resolved that he would rather have people read all of “Huck Finn” without the N-word than not experience the novel at all.

Twain raised a significant moral issue in “Huck Finn” that, for some, may be overshadowed by the abrasiveness of the N-word, impeding their ability to read and learn from the novel. In this sense, Early believes NewSouth’s endeavor will provide readers with a helpful alternative.

“If people have such a problem with the N-word,” Early concludes, “then I think they ought to read this new edition without it.”

  • Matt Davies

    I suppose the publisher can do what they want, but I always found that the story was all that more effective in its moral lesson with it there. I don’t like that word and hated when my parents used to say it. Seeing it in this book when I first read it was a bit of a shock at first. I say keep it in and keep the original version on the shelves of our libraries.