EDITORIAL: Don’t edit Mark Twain

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Alabama publisher NewSouth Books announced at the beginning of January that the company would publish a version of the Mark Twain classic “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” without any of the offensive terms, including the “n-word” which appears in the original novel 219 times.

Educators have often hesitated in using the novel in teachings due to the terms, so the new edition – brought to the publisher by Auburn University English professor Alan Gribben – is a version that is hoped to be welcomed into more classrooms since the terms are substituted out.

Gribben said in a New York Times article Jan. 4 that he was worried that “Huckleberry Finn” had fallen out of favor with many teachers and “wanted to offer an edition that is not for scholars, but for younger people and general readers.”

Many have called the idea a move of censorship while others have praised the decision. Teachers are speaking out from both sides. There are some who have even suggested leaving the novel for college and university literature classes where a more “mature” audience will study the material. While we understand why many see the change as a great opportunity to secure the novel’s place in high-school classrooms, we can’t help but wonder what price we are paying for that opportunity.

The work is many things – a look at the social structure during the time period as well as a satirical adventure of a young, wayward boy in the south – but is it not a novel meant to be controversial for its choice of wording?

What message do we send out to writers, new and experienced, with this new printing? It’s OK to write what you want, but don’t expect to get your message across to audiences if it offensive?

We can’t help but find this slightly unnerving. Yes, the words are not what make the novel, but as any writer will tell you, words are chosen for a reason. Considering the time period that Twain was portraying and the society of the late 1800s along the Mississippi River, it is important to realize that these words fit into his prose for a reason. They are not only important because they tell his story, they are important because he wrote them.

To change the classic novel because of offensive words is a big step to make. Especially since the reason many back the change is because they don’t want to expose teenagers to “offensive name calling.” If that is the case, why has the novel not been altered to change speeches with horrible grammatical structure? Many can see the novel as difficult to read solely for the reason that Huck and other characters are not educated, which is reflected in their speech and often makes dialogue difficult to understand. Why doesn’t a publisher change that?

“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” has been on bookshelves for more than 100 years. Many attempts have been made to “clean it up” or “fix it,” but still the novel endures. We hope teachers, schools, publishers and everyone realize what they are doing when they suggest such a change.

Rather than teach students that it’s OK to use offensive names, we believe the novel expresses a belief that such treatment of others based on skin color or their economic status is wrong. We as parents, teachers and community members can reinforce these teachings. And this can be done without altering Twain’s classic. To change it might not only do a disservice to the beloved author, but to our students as well.

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