Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is widely considered by scholars to be the great American novel. Centered around the story of the mischievous boy of the title, Huck Finn follows its protagonist and his unlikely partner, a runaway slave named Jim, through the American south before the Civil War. The book is lauded for its unflinching and often scatching depictions of a young country at an explosive time. It shows the United States' rural region with equal parts beauty and ugliness.
This ugliness mainfests itself in racism, which includes frequent use of the N-word. The prolific appearance of the word has led many to misguidedly label the book racist itself, furthering stereotypes and promoting prejudiced attitudes. Such a sentiment is completely wrong, but has led many a school to ban the book, depriving young readers of a true American classic that lambasts the attitudes detractors purport it to have.
In a move to combat these misconceptions, NewSouth Books' upcoming edition of Twain's masterpiece will not feature the N-word at all. Instead, it will be replaced in all instances by the word "slave." Injun will also be excluded as well. The effort is helmed by Twain expert Alan Gribben, who thinks his version is an attempt to update the classic and expose it to wider audiences who would otherwise be turned off by its repeated use of the hurtful word.
The move has sparked immense controversy, with many people crying "censorship!" and others claiming that it is taming, even emasculating and desecrating a classic, untouchable text. But is the replacement of the N-word censorship, is it a needed update, or does it lie somewhere else entirely?
I'm inclined to believe that while the new edition has its heart in the right place, and so is not censorship, it is misguided. The N-word is an ugly and awful word that represents the worst of our nation's history. I understand Gribben and company's idea that removing the word will allow readers to see what the book is truly saying without being blinded by such an accosting label, and will help get the book back in schools and other institutions where it rightfully belongs.
But to remove the word entirely is to gloss over a sordid part of our nation's history and attitudes toward race and class. The word was a sign of the times, one that unfortunately still perseveres to this day. Including the word keeps its impact, both historical and social.
Some have argued that removing the word is akin to "bleeping out" curse words from movies broadcast on television or explicit songs played on the radio. Huck Finn is literature, and in literature there is no place for dancing around the facts or dulling the brute force of uncomfortable truths.