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Mark Twain's "nigger"

The cowardice of removing the n-word from Huckleberry Finn.

If ever there was need to demonstrate the willingness of some Americans to downplay their country's undeniably racist history, this latest act of cultural revisionism should suffice. Fearing "pre-emptive censorship" at the hands of readers deemed too sensitive to make "textual encounters with this racial appellative", the Mark Twain scholar Alan Gribben has put together a new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that replaces the word "nigger" with the supposedly less "demeaning" term "slave". Its publisher, NewSouth Books, has uploaded on its site an excerpt from Gribben's introduction, in which he explains: "We may applaud Twain's ability as a prominent American literary realist to record the speech of a particular region during a specific historical era, but abusive racial insults that bear distinct connotations of permanent inferiority nonetheless repulse modern-day readers."

That this repulsion -- blind to context or artistic validity -- is indicative of the US's still unresolved attitudes to race should not be lost to Gribben, who, for 40 years, has "led college classes, bookstore forums and library reading groups in detailed discussions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn". He recounts how students and audience members "seemed to prefer" his expurgated readings of Twain's work to the originals: "I could detect a visible sense of relief . . . as though a nagging problem with the text had been addressed." Yet surely the problem is not "with the text" but with the uncomfortable realities that the text cannot help but bring to the surface. If, as Gribben states, "the n-word remains inarguably the most inflammatory word in the English language", it demands to be asked why that is the case. Making it easier for readers to skirt the issue can only be a bad thing.

In his defence, Gribben cites the Harlem renaissance writer Langston Hughes and his 1940 plea for omitting the "incendiary word" from all literature. "Ironically or seriously, of necessity for the sake of realism, or impishly for the sake of comedy, it doesn't matter . . . [African Americans] do not like it in any book or play whatsoever, be the book or play ever so sympathetic." Yet it is disingenuous of Gribben to take Hughes so literally on this point, especially since Hughes's own well-known poem "Ku Klux" uses the word to devastating effect:

A Klansman said, "Nigger,
Look me in the face --
And tell me you believe in
The great white race."

In his memoir, The Big Sea, Hughes wrote: "The word nigger, you see, sums up for us who are colored all the bitter years of insult and struggle in America." By erasing it from Huck Finn, Gribben isn't erasing "insult and struggle" from the soul of America so much as papering over the cracks. To obscure the word "nigger" by euphemism, the Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy once argued, is to "flinch from coming to grips with racial prejudice":

Given the power of "nigger" to wound, it is important to provide a context within which presentation of that term can be properly understood. It is also imperative, however, to permit present and future readers to see for themselves directly the full gamut of American cultural productions, the ugly as well as the beautiful, those that mirror the majestic features of American democracy and those that mirror America's most depressing failings.

In Huck Finn's speech, Twain himself was subverting the traditional racial categories of "white" and "black" -- something that other writers (including Shelley Fisher Fishkin, author of Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African American Voices) have explored in more depth than I can go into here. The character and book are inclusive of high life and low life, north and south, "sivilisation" and the "territories". It is this spirit of barrier-breaking inclusivity that marks out the work as distinctively American.

It boggles the mind that Gribben, an academic so clearly passionate about Twain and his achievements, should be willing to pander to the kind of readers who would unthinkingly allow his masterpiece to become the fifth most banned book of the 1990s. It would be a shame if schools in the US ever adopt his version into their curriculums.