Huckleberry Finn Revisited

Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is gradually disappearing from classrooms, largely because schools do not want to deal with the offensive “n” word that appears 219 times in the novel.

According to Publisher’s Weekly, a new edition minus the “n” word  is going to be published next month by NewSouth Books. The editor, noted Twain scholar  Alan Gribben, explained, “For a single word to form a barrier, it seems such an unnecessary state of affairs.” In the new edition, the “n” word will be replaced with “slave.”

Good idea or bad idea? I like to think of myself as a literary purist, and I’ve actually taught Huckleberry Finn several times, to classes that were a mixture of races, with no difficulty. And yet I think the new edition is a good idea.

Twain’s original book is complex, funny, profound, and controversial – when you get past the “n” word controversy. And that’s the problem: How do you get there? Discussion about Twain’s book too often comes down to a debate about that one offensive word. Everything else that happens to Huck and Jim gets lost.

But what about violating Twain’s text? English majors (me, for example) used to be encouraged to project their thinking back through time to read a book in its original context. If you were reading Hamlet, you tried to think like an Elizabethan. If you were reading Fitzgerald, you tried to put yourself back into the Roaring 20s.

To read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, you were supposed to travel back to the 19th century, when the “n” word didn’t carry the historical weight it has now.

Fast-forward to our postmodern era. Scholars today argue (and I agree) that this historical approach is wrong on two counts. First, we can’t really go back. For better or worse, our thinking is shaped by the times we live in. We’re kidding ourselves if we think we can reshape our brains at will.

Second, forcing ourselves to abandon our identities and current social context causes books to lose their relevance. Why, after all, do we continue to read classic books like Huck Finn? If they’re worth reading at all (and I think they are), it’s because there’s still something there for our 21st-century brains to grapple with.

I haven’t seen the new edition of Huck Finn, so I can’t predict how readers will be affected. I suspect, though, that we may be in for a surprise. Maybe the book has a far broader scope than we originally thought. Maybe racial issues are only one of Twain’s themes.

Maybe, in reinventing Twain’s masterpiece, we’ll discover something brand-new about the author, the characters, our shameful racial history, and – our greatest hope – ourselves.

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