Thoughts on this “Huck Finn” Business

I suppose it would be appropriate to pretext this by quoting Twain: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”

As some of you may have already heard, there has been a great stir in the literary community over the last few days regarding Alabama professor Alan Gribben’s decision to remove the “N-word” from an upcoming edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). Before I go into a diatribe as to why I find some of this business disagreeable, it is only fair to point out the merits of his case. Specifically, there are three things to keep in mind that by themselves are not entirely wrong or controversial:

(1) Because Huckleberry Finn’s public domain, this guy and his publisher have every right to make any change they deem fit (hell, I’ve been pitching my revised Paradise Lost/Treasure Island crossover to publishers for years).

(2) The revised edition will at the very least include an introduction articulating why he made the revision and attempts to explain the controversy surrounding said word.

(3) The new edition is meant only to provide an option for those who feel uncomfortable teaching a book that uses the word 219 times.

So on these grounds, I understand why he does not consider it a big deal to edit a Great American Classic. Plus, at a print run of 7,500 copies it is not as though he is the Catholic Church burning the writings of Galileo or is the German S.S. storming into a library trashing anything blasphemous to the Third Reich. In fact, the reason why Gribben’s actions are radically different than the book-burnings of the past (and therefore should be treated with less controversy) is because he is not trying to suppress anything he finds disagreeable. As he says, his only motivation is “to provide an option for teachers and other people not comfortable with 219 instances of that word.” All he is doing is looking out for those who he believes are unlikely to read a book because 0.00199% of said book uses offensive language.[1]

To Gribbens it is not the fact that any ideas may be offensive or are cause for displeasure; instead, it is the manner in which these ideas are articulated that matters. Never mind the fact that Huckleberry Finn is a work of satire that pulls no punches while criticizing the values of the era, which included segregation and the racist assumption that African-Americans were less than human. It is when one considers the intent of the novel that one begins to recognize that “Hey, this book is a piece of satire that uses this language ironically to make a statement about how stupid racism is.” And it is this ignorance of the bigger picture where my disagreement begins.

Trying to fight back against the firestorm he unleashed, Gribben appeared on Talk of the Nation (the NPR transcript can be found here) and said something that irked me most of all:

There was no pleasure for [a student] 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.

If this is true and justifies a revision because there are those who are vehemently opposed to reading anything that is (at least? at maximum?) 0.00199% offensive, it is a poor reflection of how we view literature as a people and a damning commentary on our society’s regard for reality. As a general rule, literature is not always pretty nor is the best literature always meant to be. Besides trying to entertain, there is often an underlying desire to hold a mirror to one’s peers and – in the stead of the best philosophers – comment on human nature. Sometime’s our reflection is defined and smooth, other times it is blemished. Of the latter case, a simple stroll through the list of the most commonly challenged books in the United States makes this point clear enough. Every word, sentence and idea these people committed to paper – many of whom now stand out as literary giants (Hemingway, Orwell, Fitzgerald, Angelou) – wrote because they had something to say and were hoping that there would be ears willing to listen and take note. If we cannot see that, then we do not understand literature and have deprived ourselves of the greatest tool our species wields: thought and reason. If we are to be so quick in our desire to make everyone feel good at the cost of overlooking the big picture, then we have missed the point and we can start crossing out the true stories of some of our worst times: Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906), Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), Ginsberg’s Howl (1958), Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962), Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi(1968), and so on.

So by reviving the debate of what literature is and is not acceptable in the public setting, I must thank Gribbens for legitimizing the goal of the writer: to make the reader think. Unfortunately, the other side of the coin is that Gribbens’ yielding to sensitivity also legitimizes one’s cowering from the realities of the world. The truth is this: the history of the world is a dirty one often written by the merciless and filled with injustice and wrongs incalculable. Anyone looking for a world otherwise will find only disappointment. Some may look at the cards on the table and find despair, cowardice; but as has always been the case with those who change the world, the moment one opens their eyes, steps from Plato’s cave of shadows and sees reality for what it is can one begin to actually right these wrongs, or in the case of Twain write these wrongs.

[1] According to one website the book is approximately 110253 words long and the “N-word” appears 219 times. Therefore by this count the “N-word” is only 0.00199% of the novel.


2 thoughts on “Thoughts on this “Huck Finn” Business

  1. youmanssahammah says:

    Your arguement is incridible and I do agree with you, censoring literature for the sake of making others feel comfortable with what they read; its like taking away our very freedom. I mean what if Harriet Beecher Stowe had censored her novel Uncle tom’s Cabin or Langston Hughes muffling his poetry to make the bias more at ease.

    I’m African American, I’ve read Huck Finn and had no problem with it because I got one of the many gist of the legendary novel. And that racism is wrong, inhumane, and just ignorent.

    I want to become a prominent writer and I will get whatever message I feel needs to be said, out. Without limiting my writing, my ideas.

    Besides I’ll just have to come up with a work of literature the uses the word red-neck 220 times. (Just kidding!)

    P.S read what I wrote in my blog and tell me what you think, I want to write works of fiction. Please and thank you.


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