Changes to Classic Novel are Misguided, UWG Scholars Say

Friday, January 7, 2011

Sanitizing the American classic, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” is a disservice to the novel and does nothing to further the discussion of racism, say University of West Georgia scholars.

An edition of Mark Twain’s 19th century novel is set for release by NewSouth Books with the ‘‘n’’ word removed and replaced by the word “slave.” “Injun” is also excised.

“I don’t think there is any way we can deal with the history of racism and the continuing racism in this country without dealing with the ugly language that racism spawns,” said Debra MacComb, an associate professor of English at UWG.

“Huck Finn” is one of the most frequently banned books. The literary surgery comes at the urging of Auburn University professor Alan Gribben, who has said that by removing the racially offensive language he hopes more people will read the book.

MacComb, who teaches a course on Mark Twain and also teaches the novel in her American Literature courses, disagrees.

“My students appreciate talking about the issue,” she said.

David W. Newton, chairman of UWG’s Department of English and Philosophy, concurred.

Although the conversation about racism and racist words is never easy to have, it is often educational, Newton said.

In studying “Huck Finn,” students and teachers “confront offensive words directly, and talk about our responses to them,” Newton said.

MacComb noted that Twain wanted to highlight “the failure of Reconstruction to allow these new black citizens to be part of the culture. They were increasingly disenfranchised. Slavery was over in name only. Slavery was not over.”

“Dr. Gribben suggests that it would be taught more often if not for the use of the racially offensive language. But I think we need to confront it,” she said.

Removing the slur “fails to deal with what Twain was interested in revealing. People believe that Twain was racist. Twain was anything but that. It’s his character Huck who grows up in a bath of racism. This language springs from his lips because he lives in that environment,” MacComb said. “Twain encourages us to see Huck’s racism and how he changes over the course of the book.”

MacComb noted that book was first banned in Boston soon after it was published in the U.S. not for racist language, but for its use of regional dialects.

Newton said that other American classics have also been edited.

A young adult edition of James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans” leaves out a large portion of the original novel, essentially rendering it a different book.

Doing so for younger readers may be appropriate, Newton said, but not for a college classroom.

“Literature is very often offensive and disturbing,” Newton said. “Sometimes it is purposely so. In other instances, like with ‘Huck Finn,’ it reminds us of historical realities from our own past.”