New version of 'Huck Finn' eliminates the 'N' -word

April 17, 2011 at 12:03 a.m.
Updated April 16, 2011 at 11:17 p.m.

With books such as J.D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye," Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," and John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" in their collections, area public libraries are no strangers to controversial literature.

A lack of requests, however, has so far kept a new, less controversial version of Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" out of their collections.

The new version, edited by Mark Twain scholar Alan Gribben, not only combines "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" with the "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," but it also replaces the offensive "N"-word with the word "slave" and "injun" with "Indian."

The "N"-word appears 219 times in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and nine times in "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer."

"We probably wouldn't order the item just to order it," said Catherine Muehlbrad, public services manager for the Victoria Public Library. "From our point-of-view, it feels like a form of censorship of the author's original work, but if a patron came in and requested the item because they were interested in reading it or looking at it further, we probably would go ahead and order the item for our collection, because at that point, it meets a need for members of our community."

Published in 1885, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" is widely known as one of the greatest American novels written.

However, the novel's inclusion of less than politically correct terminology, has prompted many educators to opt out of including it in their teaching curricula.

Gribben, an Auburn University professor, hoped to keep the book both in classrooms and on library shelves by making changes to the novel through publishing company NewSouth.

In February, 7,500 copies of the edited Mark Twain's "Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: The NewSouth Edition" were distributed.

"I'm just a scholar who saw a need and wanted to fulfill it," said Gribben, who has studied Twain for more than 40 years. "This book is not about the "N"-word. Mark Twain was just trying to re-create the dialect 150 years ago among uneducated people."

In addition to toning down language in the novels, Gribben also restored a passage that was in Twain's original manuscript, but was taken out by the original publishers.

"We readily agreed to publish the new edition," said Randall Williams, editor-in-chief of NewSouth Books. "We thought he had a valid reason for wanting to make these changes."

"I'm circumventing censorship," said Gribben. "It is an optional addition for teachers that are not allowed to use or do not feel comfortable teaching the older version."

During a book tour in 2009, Gribben said he came across a number of teachers who expressed difficulties with teaching Twain to their students, particularly when it came to reading his novels aloud.

"I've heard teachers say they have decided not to teach it because it takes away from the novel," said Gribben. "It focuses a lot of attention on African-Americans in class."

Cuero High School English teacher Alicia Garcia has firsthand knowledge of the troubles that come with teaching the book.

Garcia said she tried teaching the book in her regular English classes when she first came to Cuero High School, but she stopped soon after.

"The kids could not get into the book," she said. "They didn't find it offensive, but they were so focused on what was being said and not the meaning behind the words."

Other teachers, however, have continued to embrace the novel, opting to teach it in their advanced placement and college preparation classes only.

"In the lesson plan, they discuss issues related to what was acceptable at the time not being acceptable in this day and age," said Diane Boyett, VISD spokeswoman. "That's actually a part of the lesson."

"I teach the book only to my AP classes and much of the focus is on Twain's use of satire," said Dee Anna Kveton, English teacher at Calhoun High School. "In my experience, students struggle more with the dialect used by Twain rather than anything else. They recognize his language as authentic, given the period the book was set."

As a college professor, Gribben said there are noticeable differences between those students who have had exposure to authors like Twain before coming to college and those who have not.

"When I teach Twain at the college level, the biggest thing I notice among students is a lack of historical imagination," said Gribben. "They have trouble picturing an era before their own."

Since its release, the revised book has been met with mixed reactions.

"In newspaper editorials, the reaction was almost uniformly hostile," said Gribben. "I think they are out of touch with the world of high school education these days."

Meanwhile, Tammie Lang Campbell, founder of the Honey Brown Hope Foundation, a nonprofit writing/literacy organization, was extremely pleased with Gribben's changes to the book.

"It still notes the historical points in the time frame in which it was written without degrading and demeaning a race of people," said Campbell, whose foundation works to rid the use of the "N"-word. "Webster's, Random House or other reference books define the "N"-word as a black person or dark-skinned race. The definition is not based on behavior. It's based on skin color, but redneck is defined as an uneducated person from the south and wetback is defined as a Mexican that swims across the river illegally. No other racial slur is defined in the way of skin color."

She continued, "It's part of history. That's something we can't change, but you don't teach the present about the past by inflicting pain on them."

Many area libraries said when it comes to acquiring new books, such as Gribben's, it would take a request or complaint from a patron.

"We wouldn't replace the book specifically for that reason," Carol Morisak, head librarian of the Friench-Simpson Memorial Library in Hallettsville, said about the original version of the book. "We've never had (the original version) offend anyone to our knowledge."

Alice Nixon, coordinator of the South Texas Library System, said individual libraries make their own decisions about such issues. The system is a regional cooperative network of 54 public libraries in 26 counties in the southernmost region of Texas.

"If they needed a new copy of the book and that edition would fulfill its need, then they may choose to get that version," Nixon said.

Despite the controversy surrounding his edited version of Twain's books, Gribben hopes it will continue to do what it was created to do - keep Twain in schools.

"I hope they will accept a light compromise to keep the book in the classroom instead of quietly letting Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn slip off the reading lists," said Gribben. "Teachable moments are no good if they can't be taught."



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