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Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain's classic novel, was initially published in 1884.  And it has survived as an important book for more than a century without ever being edited.  For offensiveness.  Or more specifically to eliminate offensive, racist words.  At least until now.

Today NPR reports that a "New Edition Of 'Huckleberry Finn' Will Eliminate Offensive Words":

Saying they want to publish a version that won't be banned from some schools because of its language, two scholars are editing Mark Twain's classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to eliminate uses of the "N" word and replace it with "slave," Publishers Weekly writes.

The edition, from NewSouth Books, will also shorten an offensive reference to Native Americans.

As PW says, "for decades, [Huckleberry Finn] has been disappearing from grade school curricula across the country, relegated to optional reading lists, or banned outright, appearing again and again on lists of the nation's most challenged books, and all for its repeated use of a single, singularly offensive word."

One of the scholars, Alan Gribben of Auburn University, tells PW that "this is not an effort to render Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn colorblind. ... Race matters in these books. It's a matter of how you express that in the 21st century." (The edited Huck Finn will be included in a volume with Tom Sawyer.)

So, the "N" word will be rendered "slave," and the offensive reference to Native Americans will be, well, slightly excised, and that will solve the problem, it is contended.  These changes, which modify a century old work that is of fundamental importance to understanding American literature, are supposed to prevent know-nothing school boards from further banning the book.  We're not going to fight banning.  No.  We're going to cave in and change the words so elementary school kids in repressive, censoring school districts can read what used to be a great work of literature.  Put another way, the ignoramuses have won.

Yes, Huckleberry Finn contains offensive language.  It was intended to be offensive.  And that offensiveness should stay in the book.  The objectionable language might show people who are capable of reading something about race in America and that inappropriate language about race has been a volatile and harmful part of America's history. Avoiding that difficult discussion of race and the power of epithets by editing this book's words is the worst sort of cop-out.  The words don't go away just because they are changed.  And they won't ever go away if they are hidden.

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revised from The Dream Antilles

Originally posted to davidseth on Tue Jan 04, 2011 at 12:05 PM PST.

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