Mark Twain’s book, Huckleberry Finn is one of those literary works that is perpetually under attack for being racially offensive. Despite its acclaim as a literary classic, demands for its removal from school reading lists are so common as to not even be newsworthy anymore.
But, forget all that. Publisher NewSouth Books now intends to improve the book by printing an edition that will purge the word “nigger” and replace it with “slave”.
The new book will also remove usage of the word Injun. The effort is spearheaded by Twain expert Alan Gribben, who says his PC-ified version is not an attempt to neuter the classic but rather to update it.
Alan Gribben is an Auburn University (Montgomery) professor and the author of several books about Twain.
There have been numerous complaints that this amounts to censorship and all the internet polls that I’ve seen show that 85-93% of people oppose the alteration. To me it smacks of revisionism and reminds me of Winston Smith’s job at the Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s book, “Nineteen Eighty-Four“. His job was to review historical records and alter them to fit the government’s preferred version of events. Of course, NewSouth Books is not the government, but they are responding to social pressures which can be even more powerful than government. From the public response, it would seem they missed the mark, but there is no doubt that the word “nigger” has become so taboo that you would be hard pressed to find it mentioned in mainstream news articles covering this story even though the story is, in fact, about that very word. In other words, they won’t even print the word they’re discussing for fear of offending someone. That parnoid approach to journalism is reminiscent of the media’s fear of printing cartoons depicting the prophet Mohamed and underscores the need for nontraditional news outlets (now provided by the internet).
On the other hand, if this puts the book into the hands of kids who would not otherwise be allowed to read it due to forces beyond their control (overprotective parents and the school boards they frighten), then maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to judge.
Actually, nothing makes a book more appealing that banning it. Censorship almost always results in increased exposure and interest in uncensored versions of books, movies, and the arts.
The real problem here is that we are raising a generation of children who are being inculcated with the idea that a mere arrangement of letters is something to be feared independent of the context. Of course, that fits in quite nicely with the belief that it’s perfectly permissible to outlaw imagery that portrays verboten sexual fantasies. And these children will grow up with a view that freedom of expression should be restricted because of the potential for harm.
There is no such thing as a little censorship.