Twain rendered toothless in rewrite

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January 25, 2011

9:26 AM

A major commotion has arisen regarding about a new revision of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” that should be in print next month. This revision by Professor Alan Gribben, which should be released next month, removes all 219 uses of the N-word from the book and replaces them with the word “slave.” This raises many questions, the biggest of them being: Should a classic story be changed just to make it less offensive? And is accurately portraying the vocabulary of the time offensive?

Gribben’s purpose in revising the book was to keep it from being banned by schools that object to its offensive language. What these schools don’t seem to realize is that Twain picked the language carefully and purposefully. While the N-word is extremely offensive today — and was thought of as offensive in many areas of the United States when Huck Finn was written — Twain used it to prove a point: specifically, that racism was and is very wrong. Changing the words and racial slurs in the novel changes the meaning behind them. Huck Finn grows up in a highly racist community and chooses not to be biased by what he sees done to slaves, or by how his peers treat them. Twain uses these racist comments to force readers then and now both to realize the extents of racism and to champion equality.

Another question raised by the revision of this American classic is what it will mean for other classic novels that are also thought to be politically incorrect. For students at the College of William and Mary, it could mean that the texts read in many classes may change significantly over time. Future authors, fearing censorship may also be forced to stunt their creativity in order to be politically correct and inoffensive in order for their writing to be published. If a classic American novel needs to be revised in order for high school students read it in class, what does that say about other classic literature? Any novel with offensive language or imagery may soon have to be revised in order for anyone to be allowed to read and discuss it in an academic environment.

Novels and other forms of literature used as textbooks should not have to be censored in order for them to be read by students. People know that offensive words exist — and in some cases were once used commonly. Changing the words simply because someone may be offended does not make sense, especially if the book in which they are used only employs them to prove their impact. It may soon be that, any college that feels the words or images in a book are offensive can ban it in order to get it revised, causing literature as we know it to cease to exist.

Revising a classic just to make it more palatable is not be the way to get more people to read it. School systems and citizens alike should realize what the author intends by using such language and judge the work by its intended purpose, which, in the case of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” is anti-racist. This message should not be disregarded simply because it contains a bad word.

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