Thursday, January 6, 2011

My Take On It: Mark Twain and "The 'N' Word"

By now, everyone is familiar with the controversy over removing “the ‘N’ word” from Huck Finn.  

My opinion is that the book should be left alone, if it will be entitled Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.  If it’s called something else (‘Huck Finn for the Innocent’, perhaps), and gives co-author credit to Alan Gribben, then it's a different story--and a different book.  Shakespeare’s language has been updated many times, but the original language is what literature classes study and what acting companies (generally) perform.  

There are lots of books with language that offends all kinds of people. The reaction to that language by the reader is part of what we study.  Changing language doesn’t change the fact that ugly language was used in our nation’s past; it could serve to gloss over that fact, however, an omission that doesn’t serve anyone.

One of the reasons that Gribben cites is the awkwardness involved in reading the text aloud, especially in a classroom setting.  In a graduate-level class that I took last semester, someone suggested that participants in our (all-white) class read aloud some passages from Zora Neale Hurston, an author who is known for her extensive use of southern Black dialect.  Another class member objected vehemently.   

There is no doubt that:
  • Language still has the power to offend.
  • Different people approach language and text in different ways.
  • Some people feel “ownership” of “their” language allows them the ability to dictate when and how certain words are used.  Thus the occurrence of the contested word in many rap and hip hop songs, and thus the strong objection in my class, from a person who, although not Black, has a strong Southern accent. 
  • This controversy has highlighted the still-vast difference in how we react to the written vs. the spoken word.
In my opinion, the author, more than anyone else, “owns” the text.  If the author wants to change language in a work, have at it.  That’s the revision process in action.  If anyone else does it, you have censorship, plain and simple.

Whether censorship is ever justified is another post.


  1. I completely agree! For years I have used Huckleberry Finn as an example of books being banned for ridiculous reasons. Instead of hiding the N word, use it as a teaching moment. Explain that at the time Twain wrote the book that was the language.

    If you are going to start rewriting the book then why not change the kid's name...seriously no one is named Huckleberry anymore and I am sure that is offensive to someone.

  2. LOL, Paula! BTW, I'll take this opportunity to plug the wonderful book, Finn, by Jon Clinch. It tells how Huckleberry got his name!

  3. There's a great post at Read Roger ( regarding someone else who tried to edit the book, and I think it is an important addition to the discussion

  4. Thanks, Amy. That is a great post!