The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a novel first published by Mark Twain in 1884, is no stranger to controversy. It has been frequently challenged for it’s place in school curriculums, and public libraries. This book appears in several of the top ten most frequently challenged books of the year, as tracked by the American Library Association. It also appears in the top lists for each of the past two decades. The most frequent reason given for challenging Twain’s book is racism.
Can we therefore be surprised that a new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is being announced by NewSouth Books, where all instances of the word “nigger” are being replaced with “slave”? Does this proposed new edition really provide a solution to these charges of racism, or is this merely whitewashing the issue?
Does replacing this racist term with “slave” address the charges of racism, or does it merely hide them? Is not one of the important aspects of this book, the reminder that for much of early American history, those of African descent were treated as subhuman, owned as livestock?
While this new edition will still depict slavery, will the reminder that being a slave was determined by the hue of one’s skin be forgotten?
What impact can we foresee about this new edition of Huckleberry Finn? While the cofounders of NewSouth have stated that there is “a market for a book in which the n-word was switched out for something less hurtful, less controversial,” they acknowledge that there are claims of censorship. To this, they argue that “there are plenty of other books out there — all of them, in fact — that faithfully replicate the text” (Publisher Weekly).
How difficult is it now going to be, however, for a school to choose one of these more traditional texts, when those who challenge the original text can point to this edition as being less controversial? How many opportunities to address the issue of Huck’s racist statements in a classroom setting will be lost, in order that others may read this watered down edition?
While I do appreciate the editor’s introduction, which attempts to explain these editorial changes to the reader, Alan Gribbens fails to show in this new edition how the casual usage of this term by an otherwise innocent boy shows how entrenched the racial slavery was in the lower States in the 1850s. Gribbens even notes how the change to “slave” loses the “caustic sting” of the original word.
When reading the novel in it’s full context, one can see how Twain is challenging the traditional values towards the enslavement and ownership of African Americans, as Huckleberry Finn’s views towards “his” Jim change from an owned slave, to a friend whom he must break free. While the ending of the novel does tend to go over the top with Tom Sawyer’s ludicrous attempts at freeing Jim, it is Huck’s earnest desire to free his friend that shows how Twain sought to bring social justice to those enslaved.