NewSouth Books’ now-infamous version of Mark Twain‘s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which replaces all occurrences of the n-word with “slave,” is foolishness, of course. It’s designed to make the book more teachable in the classroom, but the n-word’s absence can only draw attention to its presence, which any honest person teaching the book would have to acknowledge; and if you do that, it’s a short distance to the angry parent calling the principal to ask what the hell kids are being taught in there, defeating the purpose of the whole enterprise. If NewSouth’s version isn’t pointless, then it’s cynical: It hopes that students and teachers won’t push against the text too hard or ask too many questions of it. In his introduction to the new edition (which also includes Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer), editor Alan Gribben says he’s been in the habit of replacing the n-word with “slave” at public readings. “Students and audience members seemed to prefer this expedient, and I could detect a visible sense of relief each time, as though a nagging problem with the text had been addressed,” he writes. But Gribben isn’t addressing a problem with the text; he’s avoiding the text. Either you want to talk about race in Huckleberry Finn or you don’t; if you do, NewSouth’s version only gives teachers and students another hurdle to clear.
Gribben’s introduction exemplifies an eagerness to avoid the text in that it reads less like a scholarly introduction and more like a contract: We shall agree that some things from the aforementioned text be removed, and that in return some things shall be added, to the satisfaction of both parties. Gribben opens by suggesting that that publishing Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer together repairs some kind of injustice, as if the books couldn’t be understood separately or that popular editions containing both books don’t exist. Later, after discussing the n-word issue at length, Gribben mentions that the new edition restores a scene that had been cut from the original edition of the book; notable for its “strutting, pugnacious braggarts and its chilling ghost tale about a child’s murder, [the scene] contains some of Mark Twain’s best writing,” Gribben writes. Following all his handwringing about the real reason for the edited book’s existence, this change can only read like an attempt to placate critics; you can’t argue that harm’s being done to the text if the editor went to the trouble of inserting a “chilling ghost tale” into it. If that don’t fetch ’em, I don’t know school boards.
Unquestionably, Twain’s text presents a serious problem for teachers: Cynthia Haven, who first brought word of the NewSouth book, has heard from professors sharing their reservations about discussing the book. But the book doesn’t fix the problem so much as it identifies a market niche: People who think that this book will fix the problem. Twain might have appreciated this kind of ruckus: When he learned that the Concord Public Library had banned Huckleberry Finn from its shelves shortly after the novel was published in 1885, he wrote, “That will sell 25,000 copies, sure.” But would he have any patience for the sanctimony surrounding this version of book—the very sanctimony Huckleberry Finn skewers?