Educators stand behind unaltered ‘Huck Finn’
By Kathy Millen ~ email@example.com January 10, 2011 4:46PM
Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
When is the right time to start editing a classic work of literature?
In the case of Mark Twain’s writings, some local educators say “never.”
The publisher of a planned combined volume of “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “Tom Sawyer” is expunging the “N-word” from its pages, replacing it with “slave.” The racially charged word appears in “Huck Finn” 219 times and four times in ”Tom Sawyer.”
The publisher also is changing the name of “Injun Joe” to “Indian Joe” and “half-breed” to “half-blood” in “Tom Sawyer.”
Twain scholar Alan Gribben is working with NewSouth Books in Alabama, which will come out with 7,500 copies of the new edition next month. Gribben said the word has kept the books off lists of literary classics taught in many schools today.
“It’s such a shame that one word should be a barrier between a marvelous reading experience and a lot of readers,” Gribben said.
But that one word speaks volumes on that particular period of time, said Naperville North communications arts teacher Dan Iverson, who has taught the book for more than 20 years.
“To remove the ‘N-word’ violates the importance of the work on a historical level,” he said. “It also perverts the moral lesson where Huck, raised in the racism of antebellum Missouri, must overcome the overwhelming social racism of his surrounds in order to do the right thing by his newfound friend, Jim. If you remove the ‘N-word,’ you rob the reader of a truly accurate sense of the depth of American racism both antebellum as well as when the book was written. ... To depict Huck as anything other than a product of intensely racist times diminishes the power of the work.”
Bill Burghardt, a communications arts teacher at North, agrees. He points to a passage in another book dealing with racism — “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee — in which Atticus Finch tells his daughter, Scout, in 1936 Alabama not to use the “N-word,” calling it “common.”
“He didn’t say racist or inappropriate,” Burghardt said. “That proves the point, in my book, that this word has changed meanings over time. To read the book without that in it would do a disservice to Twain, to students and to American literature in general.”
Published in the U.S. in 1885, “Huck Finn” is the fourth most banned book in schools. Ironically, it was taken off shelves in the 1880s for being too anti-racist. As recently as 1998, parents in Tempe, Ariz., filed an unsuccessful suit against the local high school over the book’s inclusion on required reading lists.
Stephen Maynard Caliendo, professor of political science at North Central College, said editing Twain’s words does not get to the root of racism. As co-director of The Project on Race in Political Communication (RaceProject.org,) and author of several books and articles on the subject, he has devoted himself to the study of racial issues.
“My primary response is that this edited form of the book is treating a symptom rather than the cause of the problem,” he said. “Book publishers and editors are not responsible for treating the cause, though we need to do better educating parents and teachers about how to honestly engage young students in the history of racism in America.”
Jackie McGrath, an English professor at College of DuPage, said it is important for students to explore difficult and controversial content in literature in a classroom environment committed to intellectual dialogue. She has observed that many college students are uncomfortable talking about race or dealing with racial or racist materials. Taking away the offending words only makes it easier to avoid meaningful conversation, she said.
“It’s important to discuss these issues, rather than hide from them,” she said. “... Hence, this kind of change to an important American novel makes it even easier for students to avoid dialogue about race in America. And if students can’t practice talking about race in a classroom that is dedicated to exploring complex cultural ideas and conflicts, is it any wonder they struggle to talk about race and its complexities in their own lives?”
Jay Strang, assistant superintendent of instructional services for School District 204, said the district’s teachers are sensitive to the racial issues in “Huck Finn,” which is on a list of books instructors can choose to teach. Largely taught in high school, “Huck Finn” also has been part of the gifted curriculum in middle school.
“They (teachers) work very hard to understand not only the cultural differences, but the piece of work and what it represents,” Strang said. “It’s a period of time. It’s an opportunity to teach what’s different between when Samuel Clemens (Twain’s real name) wrote that book and what’s occurring today. There are lessons beyond the literature that they can teach.”
Gribben conceded the edited text loses some of its sting, but said he wanted to provide an option for teachers and others not comfortable with the inclusion of the “N-word.”
And most people aren’t comfortable with the word, Iverson said. In class, his students are “properly mortified” by it. Still, no one benefits from pretending it doesn’t exist, he said.
“As educators, it is, I believe, our job to ensure a proper respect for the history and profound injury our history and that word have caused over time,” he said. “When that respect exists, learning happens. When students can gain the honest respect for that history, then ‘Huck Finn’ can be appreciated for what it is — a classic of American literature.”
Although unedited copies of the book are available, Caliendo fears some readers will only encounter the new edition and, as a result, not experience Twain’s portrayal of that time in history. He said removing the “N-word” is not the answer to removing racism.
“While offensive language is both a reflection and perpetuation of racism, surgically removing words from our lexicon does not encourage us to do that difficult work of struggling with the persistent legacy of racism’s effects for the past 500 years on this continent,” Caliendo said. “If this starts a broader conversation about race in America, then it’s worth it. My fear, however, is that this will end up being simply another momentary outrage that fades as we revert back to our unwillingness to struggle with the real issues.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report