A new bowdlerized edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from a publisher named, significantly, NewSouth, was announced this month. In it the word nigger, which appears 219 times, is replaced by slave. Now, they say, English teachers will be able to read it aloud in class without embarrassment.
Some of the arguments in defense of the change, advanced by editor and Mark Twain scholar Allen Gribben of Auburn University, are persuasive: "I was sought out by local teachers, and to a person they said we would love to teach this novel...but we feel we can't do it anymore. In the new classroom, it's really not acceptable."
Others are not persuasive at all: “Let’s get one thing straight, Mark Twain was a notoriously commercial and populist author. If he was alive today and all he had to do was change one word to get his book into every schoolhouse in America, he couldn’t change it fast enough.” So NewSouth's admittedly commercial motive is justified because Twain was not all that artistically committed to his work? Hmm.
The problem is that when nigger becomes slave, more than just a word is changed. Slavery itself is sanitized, becoming nothing more than a political condition justified over the ages by such eminences as the Old Testament patriarchs and Aristotle. It removes from the Old South's "peculiar institution" slavery's racist underpinnings.
Huck was brought up to believe that black people are an inferior sub-species. Twain's novel achieves greatness in Huck's revelation that his upbringing was wrong. When he sees Jim's eyes well up with tears while telling about how he discovered his little girl was deaf, Huck is confronted with Jim's humanity. Huck sees him not as a nigger but as a man. And therefore he apprehends, even if he can't yet articulate it, that slavery is founded on racism, and racism is founded on a lie.
When students feel uncomfortable with the n-word, the challenge is to teach them as to why it has to be there. Teaching--now there's a novel idea.
Huck and Jim in a detail from the mural A Social History of Missouri in the Missouri House of Representatives, painted by Thomas Hart Benton, 1935. Benton had his own problems with sanitizers when he included scenes of slavery in this work and Ku Klux Klansmen in a major work in Indiana. Click on the picture for a closer look, and notice the name of the riverboat.