The great Twain robbery


Mark Twain was a controversial type of guy. He’s been the subject of debate plenty of times both during and after his lifetime.

This one’s dicey, though.

The current dispute is whether some members of the modern-day literati will be allowed to have their way and edit his words–with the express intent of toning him down. The plan is to rework Huckleberry Finn to make it “less offensive” and more apt to be approved for school use.

Dear old Huck has long been banned in elementary and middle schools across the country, thanks to modern P.C. parenting, and this is a ploy to get him back in attendance.

Well, sort of. They only want the nice parts.

As with any debate, there are two sides to the story.

When you examine them carefully, it’s easy to see that both sides have honorable intentions. But when it comes right down to it, the idea may be a gambit at best–and censorship at worst.

Here’s the breakdown:


Side #1: “But it’s the ‘N-word’!”

The gist of the controversy, as best I can tell, stems from two words used throughout the book. I’ll use them once here to be perfectly clear what we’re talking about, and then not again because–hey, they’re deemed offensive for a reason, and many folks rightfully have very visceral reactions to hearing and reading them.

What we’re talking about here are the word “nigger” and the nickname “Injun Joe”, which are both used repeatedly in the text.

Under no circumstances are those words acceptable.

Let’s set that record straight right now.

But the original manuscript employs them freely, and those offended by these two phrases (and probably others) do not want their kids to be introduced to such language in a public school setting. They don’t want the epithets added to the childhood lexicon they’ve worked so hard to build and protect. They don’t want to have to explain over dinner why the duality exists; namely, why the teacher can read the words to the class but no one should say them aloud. Ever.

Fifth-graders are literal people. They operate in black and white shades of completely right and completely wrong, and thin grey lines such as these can rattle them easily.

The proponents of the change want to replace the N-word with “slave”, claiming it says the same thing anyway. Well, close enough for kids, at least.

And just who are these people who want to glorify the N-word and teach it to our children?

That’s side one.

Side #2: “But it’s Mark Twain!”

Twain was the highest caliber of plain-clothes writer. He called it like he saw it and he wasn’t afraid to pull punches. That’s exactly what we love about him and why he became a classic author in the first place.

He wanted to bring attention to the ignorance of racism, and that plays a major role in Huck Finn. It’s an evident lesson, and Huck learns that people are people whoever they are. It’s kind of the whole point. (There’s a great Wall Street Journal nugget linked at HTMLGiant on just that, by the way.)

Sometimes offending people’s sensibilities is the best way to motivate them. We didn’t become a protesting culture because we ignored the realities of war; that happened when the battle in Vietnam entered our living rooms and we couldn’t pretend it away anymore.

Literature tends to work that way. It always has. That’s what it’s for; it sheds light on who we really are, not what we pretend to be. It’s the truthful mess that counts, not the falsified pretty picture.

And just who are these people to mess with the classics, the masters?

That’s side two.

Side #3: The middle ground.

Look, what it comes down to is simple.

If you think Huck’s being ignored and shouldn’t, the logical choice is to get him un-ignored. With the current cultural climate, the most practical way to do that is to clean him up a little and insert him tidily into a general curriculum. It might be the only chance he has at reaching young minds.

Huck won’t go away. The real version will always be out there; we’ve protected it on purpose, and the adults in the room will guard him. I’d like to think that, anyway. Maybe kids will catch wind that there is a (ooh, hush hush!) grownup version and seek it intentionally to be let in on the secret. Who knows?

It chafes my personal and professional hide to think of changing the text an iota, but I can see their point if I squint a little.

The reason I can see it, though it’s hazy, is this: the N-word was not always the N-word. When the book was originally written, in a cultural climate much different than ours, calling someone that did not imply the same thing that we’d imply if we said it today.

Today, if you utter the word, you’re probably acting with racist intent. It’s a word of hatred, belittlement, and loaded history.

In Twain’s time, though, the word was a fact. The way we use the word “slave” is very similar to the way they used the N-word back in the day. It wasn’t an epithet, per se; it was just a designation to communicate when someone was speaking of a person of African descent. It was no more emotionally offensive than our saying that a person was a slave; we aren’t calling him a better or lesser person, just stating how his background could be categorized.

At the time, that word was disrespectful, sure, but appropriate. It wasn’t a slur yet. It was an everyday noun.

Now, with slavery realized as the horrible civil injustice that it is (and has always been), the N-word carries a new history. It’s a loaded weapon. It’s pregnant with hatred before it’s even spoken aloud.

I’d like it erased, and I’ve never even had to endure it firsthand; I grew up a suburban, middle-class white chick. I know this is an issue deeper felt by others and I freely admit that. I also reserve the right to detest the language just the same. It offends people I admire, people I love. People who are people, and I’m a people, too.

If “slave” meant what the N-word used to mean–USED to mean, not does today–then would it really be so bad to change it to a word that has the equatable relevant meaning to us, living now?

I wasn’t there in the 1800s. I’m borrowing from others’ recollections here, and trusting they’re right about that.

But what if Twain’s purpose was not to inflame everybody by the use of the N-word, the way inflames us now, but to mention in passing that this character is viewed by the other characters as a lesser being because of the class he was born into? Is that not what “slave” would indicate to us, here, now?

As I said, I can see it both ways. I don’t think Huckleberry Finn is in any danger of fading away as written, and I don’t think the people who are “cleaning it up” (ugh) are doing so with censorship at the heart of the reasoning. Still, it does smell enough like censorship that it leaves a really, really bad taste in my mouth.

End result? It’s messy.I don’t know.

It all leads back to the question everyone’s asking:

Do you leave the original word or do you leave the original intent?

Which is more important?


6 Responses to “The great Twain robbery”

  1. Linda says:

    What burns me up about banning books is the fact that the people who protest content only see the negative content and fail to do any research beyond it. Mark Twain, sadly, is the most notable offender.

    The book had not been banned from reading when I attended high school and I was lucky to have one of those rare teachers who loved books, loved her students, and loved teaching. When we were given the assignment to read Huck Finn, we were given the historical background, the option to read something else if anyone found it offensive, and the warning that the N-word was not acceptable language for students in her class. My father also reinforced the same. Not everyone was as fortunate as I and that is disappointing.

    Huck Finn is, while not exactly my cup of tea, a literary gem that provides insight into the past without the sugarcoating and careful tiptoes around a deeply sensitive issue. Yes, the story itself is fiction, but the environment and characters we know come from the world we live in.

    In my humble opinion, censorship has the opposite and negative effect than what it was intended. I could go further, but I will refrain as my remarks may spark some debate which I do not want to engage in.

    Writers have a tough job. The world is full of stories, good and bad, that need to be told and those of us that are brave enough to endure the onslaught of verbal commentary will tell them and I hope readers will take away the true meanings of our stories and focus less on the scary content. Writers do not do it to glorify these dark things, but to unmask and face them full on, so that we may learn and grow.

    • Tracy Lucas says:

      Thanks for your comment, Linda. I agree with much of what you’ve said. I didn’t really care for Huck Finn, as it were, but I balk at the idea of their changing something as classic as prime, first-gen American literature.

      And failing to talk about it in class clearly doesn’t mean that those things didn’t happen. Just like the Holocaust, our kids need to know how it all went down so they and their descendants will not dare to repeat the same mistakes.

      Unmasking is the name of the game.

  2. Linda says:

    “…most notable offender” should actually be “target”. Whoopsie.

  3. Jerry says:

    If a child wants to hear the word nigger all he has to do is listen to the radio for half a minute or most stand up comedy.

    I think it’s ridiculous to “clean up” an American classic all in the name of Political correctness. The more you hide it and lock it away the more power you give to the word. The fact that it causes so much debate proves that.

    • Tracy Lucas says:

      Thanks for reading, Jerry.

      You’ve hit on a great point:
      Does using the N-word give it more or less power than fearing to use it?
      That’s a killer question, and I don’t know the answer.


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