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Commentary: Hands Off 'Huck Finn'

by Stephen Becker 17 Feb 2011 11:45 AM

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.


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:

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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?

  • It’s better for me to direct you to this project, and let them speak for themselves. Suffice to say I’m a backer, and trying to become involved with the project.

    The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Robotic Edition
    Replacing the “N-word” with “Robot” in Huck Finn

  • Or perhaps you would be interested in Trials of Huckleberry Finn: Adventures with Sam Clemens.

    A new twist in the Huckleberry Finn saga, one that brings the principal characters, Huck and the young Sam Clemens, together to assist Huck in exploring how best to fit in (or not fit in!) after the turmoil of his year on the raft. To accomplish that goal, the book The Trials of Huckleberry Finn: Adventures with Sam Clemens is composed of roughly 30 episodes that range from comic, to serious, to exciting, to downright scary — in many of which Sam Clemens plays the role of advisor and alter ego.

    The story begins with Huck expressing his anger at Twain for stealing his (Huck’s book, i.e., The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). Indeed, Huck’s first statement in the book is ”I hate Mark Twain,” which is followed by a litany of wrongs Twain had done him.

    Later another dynamic comes into play which raises the current focus to a higher political, if not national level. It is, of course, the extensive use of the N-word in Huck’s language. Huck defends himself vigorously and then returns home alone to continue the debate within and finally settle it.