Alan Gribben hopes that you’re one of the ones who can read past the word.
Gribben, a noted Mark Twain scholar and professor in the English department at the University of Auburn’s campus in Montgomery, Ala., produced versions of the author’s works that sent shock waves across his academic field that rippled out into the public at large. And he got his start here in Kansas and at Kansas University.
He found himself suddenly thrust into the national spotlight last month when news outlets found out about his edition of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
The controversy is all about the word. The nasty racial epithet. The N-word.
It appears nine times in “Tom Sawyer” and 219 times in “Huckleberry Finn.”
The word is gone in Gribben’s version of the two works, and replaced with the word “slave.”
Gribben said he’s been disappointed that most television pundits and columnists stop listening there and don’t take time to listen to his explanation.
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Gribben says he’s not trying to rewrite Mark Twain. He views his book as an alternative version for those too offended by the word to pick up the original. It won’t — and shouldn’t — replace the real thing, he said.
It’s easy to dismiss this as political correctness gone too far, he said. He’ll still probably assign the ordinary text in his classes — though he does substitute for the word when teaching.
This often elicits a sigh of relief from some students in his classes, which typically enroll up to one-third black students.
And in the last 40 years, much of the media coverage around the novels centers on the usage of the word. There’s so much more in the books, Gribben said — the social commentary, the biting humor — that people can’t seem to get to because they’re blocked by the word.
But what helped crystallize his idea to create a new edition was the response he got when traveling in the deep south and doing library lectures on Mark Twain.
Teachers told him that the books are not banned outright in their districts, but the works are slowly dropping off lists of approved books that English teachers can teach in their classrooms.
That’s not the case in Lawrence public schools, where “Huckleberry Finn” is taught in the junior year of high school in American Literature I and Advanced American Literature I courses.
But across Alabama (and in other places, too, he’s found), fewer and fewer people are reading “Tom Sawyer” in junior high schools and “Huckleberry Finn” in high schools. It’s all done quietly, he said. You don’t usually read about it.
“I’ve removed the last excuse for not teaching two great masterpieces in American classrooms,” he said.
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Back in the early 1960s, Gribben, a Parsons native, was a KU student, headed for a bachelor’s degree in English. He graduated in 1964 and went on to receive his doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley.
“I developed my capacity for resistance and finding my own way at KU,” he said. That capacity has helped him in fending off the amount of hate messages — nearly 40 e-mails a day at one point, he said — he’s received since the story went national, he said.
His father owned a photo engraving business in Lawrence for a time, and he still visits every few years.
He said he considered Kansas, with its Bleeding Kansas history tied to slavery, a good place to have these kinds of discussions.
While an undergraduate, he participated in civil rights protests along Massachusetts Street and was inspired by professors, such as Stuart Levine, whom he had in English class.
Levine, who still lives in Lawrence, said he has kept up with Gribben.
“He is gentle, smart and kind,” Levine said — almost the exact opposite of the way he’s been portrayed nationally.
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KU has its own expert on Mark Twain. Susan Harris is a distinguished professor of English and an associate director for the Hall Center for the Humanities.
She’s known Gribben for years, she said. While she, like most academics, disagrees with his actions, she also said that she has respect for his motives.
The work is too important for a word to get in the way of reading it, she agreed, but added that it’s important not to rewrite the past.
She doesn’t substitute for the word in her teaching, but feels that the works shouldn’t be taught to junior high students, and probably not even high school students, except for, perhaps, honors classes. It’s difficult for younger readers to understand those themes, she said.
But, as for the word, like it or not, she said, slavery is a part of our country’s history. And that can be an uncomfortable thing to discuss.
“As long as we gloss over it, we’re not standing up to the painfulness of the word,” Harris said.
The controversy shouldn’t detract from Gribben’s abilities as a Twain scholar, she said. His work detailing the contents of Twain’s library, including notes on the pages of books, has been “one of my bibles for the last 25 years,” she said.
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Gribben doesn’t give many media interviews these days and is glad the book — and his introduction — will soon be hitting shelves nationwide so it can speak for itself.
“I don’t see it as my place to run hither and yon and explain myself to people who don’t see fit to inform themselves,” he said.
He’s not sorry, and he still thinks he did the right thing. And when Gribben needs some reassurance, he often turns to Twain.
“Truth is mighty and will prevail,” Twain wrote in a note to himself. But it’s the rest of the quote that Gribben feels is especially pertinent. “There is nothing the matter with this, except it ain’t so.”