Sunday, January 9, 2011

Civilizing Literature One Word at a Time

Some may have heard that a scholar, Alan Gribben, is working on publishing a new version of Mark Twain's 'Huckleberry Finn' & 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer' in a single volume. I say version rather than edition, because it will have a few editorial changes. Specifically editing out the words "ni**er" and "injun". As you can tell by my carefully placed asterisks, the "N" word is not a word for polite conversation. The fact that these books included the term, along with the conversationally truncated word for 'indian', many times and thus have been disappearing from school reading lists is an excellent example of trying to hide reality from our kids.

I would add my voice to those who find the idea of retroactively 'cleaning up' past literary works a very bad idea. This is exceedingly stupid, no matter how eminent the scholar doing the work or how sound they think their reasoning is. Taking out words we find offensive is censorship, no matter the rationale. I don't think we want to teach students that censorship is OK as long as it's for a good cause. 

Gribben stated, from his Auburn University office that:

"This is not an effort to render Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn colorblind. Race matters in these books. It's a matter of how you express that in the 21st century."

So it's alright to change the author's work to make it fit current social standards? Really? I was pretty sure that was all but the exact definition of censorship. How many living authors, do you think, would put up with having a celebrated work of theirs altered for delicate sensibilities? This strikes me as the same sort of simple minded drivel as draping clothing over semi-nude statuary. A professorship doesn't always equal level headed thinking, unfortunately.

Those books were written in a particular time and place and the language reflects that. How many other works are now going to be considered for this treatment? I'm sure many see it as a minor thing since it's just a couple of distasteful words, but where does it end? This is the proverbial 'slippery slope'. It doesn't matter how good your intentions are, once you start doing this, someone will find another example to be purged, then another, then another. All for the Greater Good. All with the best intentions.

We cannot and should not child-proof the world to make everything in written history palatable for today's standards. Trying to do so is disrespectful of the authors and disrespectful of your student's intelligence. Don't change the words, teach your students why these words were used and teach them about the historical context. These words are an opportunity to enlighten your students.  A teacher's job is not to keep everyone happy and comfortable, it's to teach!


  1. I saw this too. I completely understand that the N word is highly charged. It is one of the most explosive words I think we can utter in our culture. And with good reason. It came from a time of complete disrespect for an entire race's humanity and value. I would never utter this word.
    So do I agree that this word should be removed from classic and historical literature?
    Absolutely not.
    I won't get into the point that race relations is the point of this work.
    The point that you make about it being a matter of educating kids is a beacon of sanity. We NEED to understand what happened, how people were treated so that we not only learn from our short sightedness but so that we can transform our own perspectives.
    I wonder if these people are so keen on censoring other things like Sarah Palin about "reloading" for a fight and putting a person's election and name in a gun's cross hairs. Considering that this is current and most certainly does have an effect on what people think and do, perhaps this issue would be a good place to use up all that energy they have. Perhaps we should be less concerned with what is now mostly a historical reference and more about what crap is tumbling out of people's mouths now.

  2. Hi, I am trying to get in touch with you. I am writing an article about this topic and I would love a writer's point of view. Does this "revision" have a chilling effect on the words you choose to express yourself as a writer? How far do you think publishers should go to “protect” young people from disagreeable periods in History? Please contact me at my email address:


Please let me know what you think, even if it's to disagree.