Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 27 November 2014

Huckleberry Finn revision removes racial slur

A revised edition of Mark Twain's Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer will remove a racial slur in an effort not to offend readers.

Twain scholar Alan Gribben, who is working with NewSouth Books in Alabama to publish a combined volume of the books, said the word "nigger" appeared 219 times in Huck Finn and four times in Tom Sawyer.

He said the word put the books in danger of joining the list of literary classics that Twain once humorously defined as those "which people praise and don't read". The N-word will now be replaced with "slave".

"It's such a shame that one word should be a barrier between a marvellous reading experience and a lot of readers," Mr Gribben said.

In addition to replacing the N-word, Gribben changes the villain in Tom Sawyer from Injun Joe to Indian Joe and "half-breed" becomes "half-blood".

Yet Twain was particular about his words. In a letter in 1888, he said "the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter".

He said it was "the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning".

The book is not due to be published until February, at a mere 7,500 copies, but Mr Gribben has already received a flood of hateful emails accusing him of desecrating the novels.

He said the emails proved the N-word made people uncomfortable.

"Not one of them mentions the word. They dance around it," he said.

Another Twain scholar, professor Stephen Railton at the University of Virginia, said Mr Gribben was well respected, but called the new version "a terrible idea".

The language depicted America's past, Mr Railton said, and the revised book was not being true to the period in which Twain was writing.

Mr Railton has an unaltered version of Huck Finn coming out later this year that includes context for schools to explore racism and slavery in the book.

"If we can't do that in the classroom, we can't do that anywhere," he said.

He said Mr Gribben was not the first to alter Huck Finn. John Wallace, a teacher at the Mark Twain Intermediate School in northern Virginia, published a version of about 20 years ago that used "slave".

"His book had no traction," Mr Railton said.

Mr Gribben, 69, an English professor at Auburn University Montgomery, said he would have opposed the change for much of his career, but began using "slave" during public readings and found audiences more accepting.

He decided to pursue the revised edition after middle and high school teachers lamented that they could no longer assign the books.

Some parents and students have called for the removal of Huck Finn from reading lists for more than half a century.

In 1957, the New York City Board of Education removed it from the approved textbook lists of elementary and junior high schools, but it could be taught in high school and bought for school libraries.

In 1998, parents in Tempe, Arizona, sued the local high school over the book's inclusion on a required reading list. The case went as far as a federal appeals court; the parents lost.

Published in the US in 1885, Huck Finn is the fourth most banned book in schools, according to Banned In The USA by Herbert Foerstal, a retired college librarian who has written several books on constitutional freedom of speech issues.

Mr Gribben conceded the edited text lost some of the caustic sting but said: "I want to provide an option for teachers and other people not comfortable with 219 instances of that word."

AP

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