What’s Huckleberry Finn without the “N” word?
A Twain scholar’s decision to replace the racially tinged word in a soon-to-be published edition of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” in order to attract more readers has ignited a firestorm of criticism, with librarians, book lovers and teachers arguing that sanitizing the masterpiece sugar coats the ugly history of American racism.
“We have an ethical stand against this kind of censorship,” because it obscures the intent of the author, said Deborah Caldwell Stone, deputy director of American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.
Published in 1884, the book is a reflection on the social attitudes in the South during slavery and is in the canon of American education. Typically taught to New York City eighth graders, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Education said yesterday that the original version will continue to be offered, although administrators of individual schools could purchase expurgated copies.
While the original version is embraced in the city schools, it is one of the most frequently banned American classics nationally.
“There’s virtually no other word with the potency to hurt as that particular word,” said Twain scholar and Auburn University English professor Alan Gribben, who pitched the idea to reissue an expurgated version, now set to be released in February.
Gribben’s publisher at New South Inc., Suzanne La Rosa, said the book sought only to serve educators who might be uncomfortable using a text salted with hurtful racial epithets.
In addition to replacing the “N” word with “slave” in more than 200-plus places, Gribben will also be substituting the word “injun” with “Indian” in his combined volume of Huckleberry Finn and “Tom Sawyer.”
Critics argue that instead of encouraging more readers, the sensitivity police are underestimating the abilities of students to understand the context of the book.
Janet Neary, an assistant professor at Hunter College who teaches slave narratives, said her students have taught her that “if we are to understand race, we have to understand racism” best conveyed in original texts.
"It is the job of educators to explain the historical and literary context of books," added Danielle Flynn, 31, a fashion designer who was one of many African American readers at the mid-Manhattan library yesterday.
So what would Mark Twain think of the change?
The author died in 1910, but some noted yesterday that he once remarked in a letter “the difference between the almost right word and the right word is a really large matter.”
Tim Herrera contributed to this story.