A new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn went on sale this month. It’s the one with the N-word deleted from Mark Twain’s novel – and the version commentator Tom Dodge takes issue with.
- KERA radio commentary:
- Online version:
Teachers sometimes say they would like to assign The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn but do not because they are intimidated by a word used in it many times. Now, NewSouth Books hopes that changing the word, the so-called N-word, to “slave,” will make assigning it easier. This might seem like a noble act. But to the faithful it violates one of the Ten Commandments of Art, being “Thou shalt not mess with the classics.”
To the priesthood of writers, scholars and teachers, classics are sacred texts, bibles composed by deities, containing eternal virtues and hope of salvation. They tell heroic stories that connect us with each other, with nature and the cosmos. They are about us and are as true today as they were when written. We, the faithful, copy passages and magnetize the quotations to the refrigerator and append them to e-mails. Like all bibles, though, Huck Finn is often misinterpreted.
Mark Twain is America’s literary deity-in-chief. He came to earth on a comet and left on it when it came back and picked him up. It is believed by faithful literature teachers that he will return on the comet some day, bringing another classic that will show us a new heaven and a new earth.
Well, he has, in fact, sent us a new book from the yonder world. It’s his life story and is in the top 10.
It would be a blessing if, in it, he would speak directly to those readers with literal minds and explain how he found the form, new in American literature, the art of ironic displacement, in which a young, uneducated, innocent conflicted narrator tells a profound story of the whole of America, its courage, its aspirations of freedom and expansion, and its struggles with conscience, life, death, heaven and hell. Why did he tell a story that would be criticized in its own day for creating as a model for teenage boys, one who smoked, showed doubts about religion, and skipped school, a book that would, after the Civil Rights revolution, be criticized for his repetitive use of that one word?
We say that he was a camera and a recorder, determined to show succeeding generations a picture of America, not nearly so pretty as the one in the patriotic songs. As our unofficial literary deity-in-chief, he must have chuckled, knowing he would still be rankling people’s conceits a 150 years in the future, not only of race but also of war and religion as well.
We feel helpless addressing the feelings evoked by the N-word. It’s somehow fitting that Mark Twain, the agnostic, would symbolize all our unresolved emotions about slavery, war and Christianity with a single word, a word so powerful that, like the name of the Old Testament deity, it must be spoken only in code.
How can English teachers allow themselves to pass up such a challenge?