UW News

January 19, 2011

A sanitized ‘Huckleberry Finn?

UW News

Literary circles have been buzzing lately about the news that Mark Twain scholar Alan Gribben and NewSouth Books plan to release a version of Twains classic Huckleberry Finn with the “n” word replaced throughout with the word “slave.”

Read a New York Times “Room for Debate” column and an article in Publishers Weekly about the news. And heres a Washington Post opinion column saying the whole thing is just “wrong.”

UW Today Assistant Editor Peter Kelley contacted several faculty members, in the English Department and beyond, who were kind enough to offer opinions. Here are some of their views. (So far, no one thinks its a good idea.)

Richard Dunn, English (emeritus)

Mark Twain's 'Huckleberry Finn'

Dunn wrote, “I have been interested in the few things I have heard on radio or seen in print about this. I have taught the book most recently for a local alumni (Swarthmore) group, and recall that we recognized the issue of the n-word but I think understood that what Huck discovers about Jim is so counter to the verbal racial denigration, that the word should not be expurgated and to change it to “slave” turns racial slur into socio-economic one, thereby conceivably reducing the matter of racism to only those as slaves.

“This is hard to describe, I realize.  But in the classrooms and other 21st century readings, I do not think we should distort the ugliest facts of our past, linguistically or other.  How can we deal with matters of race, ethnicity, culture, if we alter the historic record of them?”

He added that writer Nancy Rawles didnt hesitate to use the word in her book My Jim, and wondered what she might have to say about this new version. He asked, “I wonder how much of the incentive for the new text comes from the view that this is a children’s book; even though I know that for decades it has been banned from public school reading lists in some states and areas?”

Anu Taranath, English

In a phone conversation, Taranath, senior lecturer in English and Comparative History of Ideas (and recipient of 2010 Distinguished Teaching Award), called the altered Huck Finn “misguided and ridiculous,” a sanitizing of history thats all too common in mainstream America.

Should the book be taught as written in classes, or abandoned? “I go back and forth on that,” she said. It creates something of a “cultural vacuum” for American students not to read Huck Finn as it stands, but it definitely should not be altered for modern sensibilities.

She asked, why not create new classics by more recent, living writers, that better reflect diversity of the worlds cultures, and speak to our students in more authentic and resonant ways?

Mark Patterson, associate professor, English.

“I have seen a few reports about this story, and I find it fascinating in many respects,” wrote Patterson, an associate professor. “As someone who has edited books (Thoreau, not Twain), I realize that books themselves are never fixed or stable. They’re always changing according to the times.  (Twain had two separate illustrations for Pudd’nhead Wilson — one that heightens the racial issues and one that glossed them over.)”

“Books are fluid things, a lot more fluid that people give them credit for. They change all the time, so there’s nothing really new about this new edition. That’s a general assessment.”

Patterson wrote that he understands the feelings surrounding the word (which he used in full saying we should “confront it, rather than sanitize it”), especially because it still has the power to wound. “But I prefer to discuss it in class, to historicize it, rather than to alter it,” he added.

Its precisely because the word still exists but slavery doesnt (at least in American terms), that we need to keep it alive,” he wrote. “Thats why the substitution … doesn’t make much sense to me.  After all, Twain himself was writing in a “free” — albeit Jim Crow — America. I was just thinking today how much more like the Jim Crow era America is becoming, what with the de facto school resegregation we see everywhere (including in Seattle).

“So it’s a good thing to discuss this new edition, if only for the politics surrounding it.”

Stephanie Smallwood, history.

“Personally I think it’s an unfortunate move.  My own view is that we do little to heal, and more importantly to understand, the very real history of race in America when we erase the evidence of a racial past in this way.”

She wrote that making such a word replacement “in a text written by a man who was very much a product of nineteenth-century American racial thought is to try to rewrite history, and that can never be a good thing.”

Stephanie Camp, Dio Richardson Endowed Professor of History

“My take on the perennial debate about Huck Finn (and it is perennial — it’s been sanitized, de-sanitized and threatened with sanitation many times over the years) is that the text is both a relic of a seriously disturbing past that almost everyone would rather not think about and a great work of American culture. That is, it is both a piece of history and a piece of American culture. As a commentary on and document of history and as a work of art, in my opinion there is little intellectual justification to re-writing it. Of course doing so violates it as art and as history.”

But that leaves open the question of whether the text can be taught well in secondary classrooms, she wrote. “I assume it is being ‘edited so it can be safely taught to high schoolers?  May I suggest that though it is a book about boyhood and though it is funny, perhaps it is nonetheless not an appropriate text for the high school classroom?

“Or perhaps it could be appropriate for a classroom in which black students were not a minority because, let’s face it, who would want to put a black youngster in the position of discussing and pretending to be educated about the complicated story of a runaway white boy and a runaway enslaved man …?

“In other words, this whole issue strikes me as a pedagogical one, not an abstract one” about speaking the “n” word in the presence of a minor, she wrote. Teachers always make choices about how they will teach the book. “We all frame the content and presentation of our subject matter so as to at least try to be effective. Probably, the answer to whether Huck Finn can effectively illuminate the craft of writing, the culture and history of American slavery, and something about boyhood differs from classroom to classroom and school to school.”

Camp wrote that she is “far more concerned” that many students say they have learned virtually nothing about the history of slavery “beyond that it happened and it was bad but there was an Underground Rail Road and then Abe Lincoln freed the slaves.”

She wrote that if her students are right and high schoolers are indeed not exposed to learning “a thing about 2 1/2 centuries that the American colonies and the U.S. were, as one historian has said, ‘the land of the unfree,” she cant see the point
of asking them to absorb 219 instances of the word.

She wrote, “Educationally and pedagogically, it almost seems random and even perverse to do so.”