Recently, you may have read about changes being made to a new American edition of Huckleberry Finn. Apparently NewSouth Books, a publisher from Alabama, has decided to replace the “n-word” with the word “slave” in an attempt to boost modern readership of the novel. Of course, this has caused some controversy among bookish types and those preaching the PC way.
The book has been banned from certain school boards for a while because the “n-word” is seen as being quite offensive to some and the school of thought is out there that the word alone makes the book inappropriate for school aged children. For this reason, an expansion in readership is a possibility and will certainly help with sales of the book (which, no doubt, is a major concern of the publisher). More and more students and adults alike will begin to experience the novel, whereas before this alteration they may very well have not taken it on for whatever personal or academic reason.
A noble effort, but I would argue instead that it’s rather detrimental from a cultural perspective. True, more students may read the book (they already do in many schools here in Newfoundland), but by pretending the “n-word” didn’t exist when the book was initially published in 1885, the reader’s understanding of the time period, the attitudes and prejudices of the time will be lessened. In the 19th century the word “nigger” was in common use, even well into the 20th century as well. This is no way suggests it’s ok for us to use it in a derogatory fashion today, but the reality is that the word did exist and was used, rather commonly; to suggest the opposite is true is historical denial and factually incorrect. Owning another human being is wrong and to remove a word that reminds us of how wrong slavery is in an effort to make people more comfortable with it is morally reprehensible.
I think the way to handle this sort of issue in Twain’s writing is to educate readers about the period and the uses of the word, allowing them to build cultural context which will help in understanding where the word came from and why it is inappropriate to use today. More important than this, students will be forced to come to terms with the discomfort produced by the “n-word”. Words themselves have no meaning beyond what we ascribe to them and if we deny the use of a word, no matter how small or seeming insignificant, we are diminishing the impact that word has had on groups of people to whom it has been applied; and this is nothing short of an injustice of high degree.
None of this is to mention the fact that to make these kinds of changes is to alter the intellectual contribution of a significant American writer to the world in which he lived and the world in which we live today. This kind of censorship begins with just one word in one text , but before long other works will be altered, on precedent, for whatever reason, compromising our literary and cultural history. As a writer myself, I shutter to think where this can lead in the hands of extremists.
Oh turn you, Sam Clemens, in your grave.