Publisher Edits Twain Classics To Remove Slurs
NEAL CONAN, host:
Next month, Mark Twain's classic novel "Huckleberry Finn" gets an update. The story will stay the same, but the N-word will be scrubbed from its pages 219 times. Alabama-based publisher NewSouth Books will replace Twain's noun with the word slave. As you might expect, "Tom Sawyer" also gets a facelift. Both novels will be in one volume.
Many scholars and teachers view Twain's language as an integral part of the story, all of it, including words we know sometimes people find offensive. That's why this story is about, in some respects. We warn you that we will use those words over the next few minutes. Callers may use them as well. So, with that warning, we should also add that, for decades, teachers and librarians have faced demands to take novels out of the syllabus and off the shelves.
So if you're a librarian or an English teacher, is this still Mark Twain? 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Alan Gribben teaches English at Auburn University, wrote the introduction to the new edition of "Huckleberry Finn" and "Tom Sawyer," and joins us now by phone from his office in Montgomery. Nice to have you with us today.
Professor ALAN GRIBBEN (Professor of English, Auburn University): Good to be here.
CONAN: And why do we need an edited version of a classic like "Huckleberry Finn" or "Tom Sawyer"?
Prof. GRIBBEN: Well, I don't think everyone needs it. But my 40 years of teaching the novels and my recent lecture tour, which took me to many libraries and communities last year, convinced me that, increasingly, public school teachers are finding it more and more uncomfortable to get these books into the classroom. And, in fact, if you consult the records of the American Library Association, you'll see that "Huckleberry Finn" is the fourth most-challenged book among the so-called classics of all time and that "Tom Sawyer" falls behind. I think it's 14th.
This has resulted in a situation where many school districts and many administrators and a growing number of teachers simply feel that they'll have to use other readings. That is a great shame, because these two are probably the most vibrant novels of the 19th century.
And so, my book speaks to that particular need. It is not intended for the expert. It is not intended for the advanced reader, not intended for the senior scholar. In fact, I emphatically point people in the direction of authoritative text. And indeed, I, myself, edited an edition of "Tom Sawyer" two years ago that used the original first edition. But it seems to me that this small change enables us to set aside a word that has inflamed all discussions of the book now for 30 or 40 years. And we then can look at the novels and see the biting satire and the - and a very realistic treatment of slave conditions and so forth.
CONAN: You said they were among the most vibrant books of the 19th century. I'm sure a lot of teachers and readers would say vibrant in part because of their vibrant language.
Prof. GRIBBEN: Absolutely. And that's why I only tampered with the one word. But that word has proved to be quite a hurdle for many younger readers, their parents and their teachers.
Now some people have objected by saying that this might deprive teachers and educators of a wonderful opportunity to get into discussions of race relations. But I have to say, I find it - I could think of a dozen more constructive entries into such discussions than to write that word on a - on the wall and begin to discuss it with students. In fact, this novel, even with this small change, is hardly a colorblind novel.
On every page there are distinctions of class and race. So it occurred to me, after so many years of teaching and lecturing, there might be -it might be helpful to offer teachers this optional alternative.
CONAN: That's for "Huckleberry Finn." There's a character in "Tom Sawyer," Injun Joe. Is his name changed?
Prof. GRIBBEN: Well, there are nine references to the N-word in "Tom Sawyer," and those were altered to slave. And the debasement of the native peoples, I think, has probably proceeded far enough.
I also retired the archaic Injun term and - however, I left the racial denominator Indian because it helps explain why the villain in the story feels so alienated from the village as the frontier has receded away from the village and he's stranded there and treated, he feels, disrespectfully.
CONAN: And is it fair, having changed words, to say it's still by Mark Twain?
Prof. GRIBBEN: Well, I can't channel Mark Twain, and I don't think anyone could. But I will remind your listeners that he was, by far, the most changeable personality and author we have.
He changed locations repeatedly. He changed his costume, donning the famous white suit in the last few years. He changed his text. He changed his lectures. He changed his autobiography so many times that that's why it only issued recently, because it perplexed editors for so many years since he continued to tinker with it and change it and revise it.
So, really, who of us is to say whether he might have adapted to this? After 125 years, the book is sort of - it belongs to America as much as it belongs to the author. And the opposition to any change is quite understandable because I think all of us feel possessive and rather sentimental about the figure Mark Twain and very proud of his writings that are associated with the United States.
But at the same time, we live in a vastly changed cultural climate, and frankly, I make no apologies for offering this alternative. I am not, in any way, decreeing that a great many readers should do this, go to that edition. But there it is, and we'll let the readers decide what they want to do with it.
CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. James, with us from San Antonio.
JAMES (Caller): Oh, thank you for having me on. I enjoy the show.
CONAN: Thank you.
JAMES: I - you know, when I first read about this, that it was going to be on, my response is, well, this is offensive. And I think you had, Neal, you asked exactly the right question. Is this still Mark Twain? Thinking about it awhile, I think my first impulse was exactly correct. This is not Mark Twain.
The N-word is in the book because it is a powerful, explosive word. It is used intentionally and ironically. It is a hurtful word, and that that's exactly what Twain intended. We get the irony of Huck Finn, you know, thinking that he's going to hell because he helps Jim, and the language in the book is essential to the meaning of the book.
This is another book. This is some new book that Professor Gribben has decided to edit here, but it is not Mark Twain any longer.
CONAN: James, thanks very much for the call, and I think...
Prof. GRIBBEN: Well, the listener would overlook a great deal in the book if he thinks this is not Mark Twain. Intact in the book are the criticisms of certain types of religion, the satiric attacks on all sorts of targets that Huck encounters along the river, many, many attacks on slavery itself.
Why is this word so precious to some people? I just don't understand. You would think that that is just the most precious word in the English language, the way some people grow defensive about it. Oh, it must be in there. It must be in there. And yet slave hardly carries any good connotations. It's abhorrent in the civilized world today and works very well, I think, in this book. And again, I just want to emphasize that person is free not to purchase the book, not to read the book and to turn to the other authoritative editions that I recommend.
CONAN: I didn't think he said you weren't free to edit it the way you wanted it, too. It's out of copyright, so you can do what you wish. But this from Jason in St. Paul: I'm a librarian. Your guest said that teachers found it difficult to introduce the book into their classes. But it's supposed to be difficult. Rewriting things like "Huck Finn" is the first step to rewriting history. What's next?
Prof. GRIBBEN: I really can understand these concerns, and I probably would have been there on their side 10 or 15 years ago. But I've just had a number of personal experiences that - and many, many conversations with teachers and with general readers and with students that led me to believe that some segment of the reading audience would appreciate another option than being confronted with that word so many times. That's not an ordinary word. That is a - quite a hateful word in today's society.
And I remember about nine-and-a-half years ago when my daughter was in high school, an African-American young woman, a friend of hers, told my daughter how outraged and demeaned she felt to be required to read that book. There was no pleasure for her at all in turning the pages where this word slapped her again and again and again.
And so, again, as an option for school districts that are otherwise abolishing the book, I cannot see why people object to a wider readership for the book. They seem to - so many of my critics, the people who have been in touch of me, they seem to feel that somehow that book - that word is what the book is all about, that that's the whole essence of the book. There's nothing else in the book.
CONAN: If I...
Prof. GRIBBEN: I'm sure that Twain used the word rather almost without too much thought, because after all, he was part of the Realist movement. He was simply trying to evoke what language prevailed in that part along Mississippi River in the 1840s when he grew up. It was not the point of his book. The point of his book is the context all around that word, and slaves certainly conveys the inferior and subjugated status of African-Americans in the 1840s.
CONAN: Alan Gribben, professor of English at Auburn University in Montgomery. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
Let's get Mary Lee on the line, Mary Lee calling us from Portland, Michigan.
MARY LEE (Caller): Hi.
Prof. GRIBBEN: Hello.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
MARY LEE: As a high school English teacher, I appreciate the change because it allows me to take away that hurdle that mostly parents have with Twain, because Twain is considered American literature's dirty little secret. We can't talk about the N-word. We can't use it. It's the same hurdle we face when we're talking about "To Kill a Mocking Bird." "To Kill a Mocking Bird" falls generally in the ninth grade curriculum. Twain and American literature falls with the 10th grade curriculum.
You have a maturity level of students, so if it takes away that stigma that students do not have to face that word directly head on, I think it opens up so much for teachers to then get students and parents engage in a conversation. Because then - and you let them know this is the history of the attack on Twain. It opens up an entire new realm of appreciation and discovery.
CONAN: If you taught the book, Mary Lee, would you explain to your students that it had been censored?
Prof. GRIBBEN: She wouldn't need to. The introduction refers to it again and again, and discusses it page after page, if the students read the introduction.
CONAN: And we'll let Mary Lee answer for herself.
MARY LEE: Yes. I do teach Twain, and I look forward to being able to bring in your book as a supplement in addition to what I'm doing now, in particular with my students in my advance placement classes, because then they can really get into literary criticism and use your book as another resource.
CONAN: Mary Lee, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
Prof. GRIBBEN: She may be an excellent and gifted teacher. Many teachers have told me that for the younger readers, it's difficult to look at a word used five or six times on a page and remember the teacher saying, now, remember, Mr. Twain didn't mean this. Remember that we're talking about irony here. It's a difficult concept, I think, for a somewhat-developing reader to grasp and to retain. And I think this teacher's exactly who I had in mind in putting this out there with no thought at all that it would ever come to dominate the literary readership for the audience, simply another alternative for school districts and teachers.
CONAN: I would have to say, of course, she speaks her own mind, but she - from the calls and letters we're getting - is in the minority. This from Shirley: As an African-American woman, I think it's sad to remove any of the original language from these novels. This is really bad precedent. The word is used in books, magazines, in a lot rap music and in movies in 2010. If it's good enough for rap music and movies in 2010, it should remain in this original novel. What is next?
And I think that's the question a lot of people would have. Would other novels be beneficial to...
Prof. GRIBBEN: No, I - first of all, I hardly have the authority to go and rework rap music or movies or anything else. Secondly, those lyrics and films and so forth are not made required reading in integrated classrooms.
CONAN: But it's not as if the students and sophomores in that class at Portland, Michigan, don't hear them.
Prof. GRIBBEN: No doubt. No doubt. But here is one place where they won't have to confront them in assigned, compulsory reading.
CONAN: Well, Professor Gribben, thank you very much for your time today. Appreciate it.
Prof. GRIBBEN: All right.
CONAN: Alan Gribben, a Twain scholar at Auburn University in Montgomery in Alabama, and the editor and the introduction writer of a new edition of "Huck Finn" and Mark Twain that eliminate offensive language. He joined us by phone from his office.
Tomorrow, explorer Robert Ballard joins us for a special broadcast from National Geographic on the role of the explorer in the 21st century. What's still left to explore? Join us for that.
I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.