Huckleberry Finn gets his mouth washed out with P.C. brand soap.

As readers of this blog may know by now (all four of you!), I am not averse to messing with the classics.  Take some Jane Austen, add a zombie or two and all of a sudden you’ve got Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a new and interesting take on an old story.  You may argue that it’s a violation of the original author’s intent, or a debasement of their art, but hey, as long as the original is around to be read in concert (or instead of) the re-imagining, well, to me it’s no harm, no foul.

Then again, sometimes people edit books for content, taking away from the original rather than adding to it.  Such is the case with Alan Gribben’s, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: The NewSouth Edition to be released in February.  In this revised version of the classic Twain novels, all references to the word “nigger” have been removed and replaced with the word “slave”. (note to readers: that will be the one and only time I use that word in this post…for illustration only)  It should also be noted that the word “injun” has been redacted from Tom Sawyer’s tale.  

Gribben explains away his tampering with the original in an interview with Publisher’s Weekly, in which he says,

This is not an effort to render Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn colorblind…Race matters in these books. It’s a matter of how you express that in the 21st century.”

He goes on to talk of his discussions with various teachers and how many have become reluctant to teach the novel in the classroom because they felt the source material was not appropriate in this day and age.

For a single word to form a barrier, it seems such an unnecessary state of affairs,” Gribbens says. 

Attempting to correct this unnecessary state of affairs, he took it upon himself  to create a version of the classic more “accessible” to modern readers sensibilities and NewSouthBooks picked it up for printing and distribution.

And with that, sometimes we need to be reminded that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

Here’s the interesting thing about NewSouth Books: If you go to their homepage and click on the link About NewSouth Books, Suzanne La Rosa (the publisher) gives her insite into what they want to do as publishers:

We gravitate to material which enhances our understanding of who we are and which asks us to stretch in our understanding of others,” she says in a 2008 article with the Louisville Courier-Journal.

Really?  How is it enhancing the reader’s understanding of the ante-bellum South by censoring any reference to the attitudes and word usage of those times?  Twain wrote social commentary in the guise of literature, and challenged the reader to face ugly truths.  Slavery did exist, African Americans were the victims of a truly horrible slur that denigrated their very existence, and to my mind, it shows no courage whatsoever to gloss it over.  Courage would be to confront and examine the text and why Twain would feel compelled to add the “N” word to his tale. 

Tony Norman wrote a great article on the subject in the Pittsburg Post-Gazette this past Friday, in which he calls professor Gribben’s re-imagining,

a misguided attempt to rescue the novel from those who stupidly accuse it of racism“.


Despite its resemblance to a child’s adventure story, “Huckleberry Finn” is a dagger to the heart of white privilege and its all-pervasive cultural assumptions. That’s why the racists of Twain’s time despised the book. They knew it was a veiled attack. We’re too culturally self-absorbed to see what was obvious to them. We’re so hung up on a word we miss the liberating speeches.”

That’s the point now, isn’t it?  Gribben and his cohorts can’t see the forest for the trees. 

In the final analysis, this is all probably a flash in the pan.  After all, there are numerous editions of Twain’s books on the market, so it’s not as if you can’t find the original text.  As for Alan Gribben, his censorship comes from a desire to do what he thinks is the right thing.  However, if you edit on the basis of what might offend, what comes next?  Christopher Howse asks that same question in the Telegraph.  No more Merchant of Venice because it could be offensive to Jews? 

And in that vein, how long might it be before history texts are edited for content?  Will the Holocaust simply become, “that bad thing that happened?” 

Concentration camp becomes “re-education centre?”

Nazi becomes “misguided soul?”

I exaggerate for effect, but really, how is this much different? If we can’t examine the past in the context with which it happened, then what really can we learn from it?  Rright about now I would love to hear what Mark Twain would have to say on the subject.  I suspect it would be interesting.