Everyone’s writing can be edited — including Mark Twain’s. But should Twain’s work “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” one of America’s great novels, get the red pencil treatment 126 years after publication — and after being consumed by millions of readers, from students to scholars?
Yes, says Alan Gribben, a Kansas University alumnus, Kansas native and Mark Twain scholar at the University of Auburn at Montgomery, Ala. Gribben’s edited versions of Twain’s “Huck Finn” and “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” are being published this month without the N-word, which appears 219 times in the original “Huck Finn” and nine times in “Tom Sawyer.” In Gribben’s version, the word has been replaced by “slave.”
Gribben has been criticized — sometimes viciously — by many since the publication of his books was announced, but few have asked him directly why he thought it necessary to remove the N-word from Twain’s work.
Journal-World reporter Andy Hyland asked Gribben last week why the need to edit Twain. The professor’s answer appears logical: “I’ve removed the last excuse for not teaching two great masterpieces in American classrooms.”
Students in Lawrence’s public high schools are taught Twain’s version of “Huck Finn” in American literature courses. However, there apparently are enough schools out there that won’t teach the original version because of the inclusion of the N-word, that a publisher has determined there is a market for a freshly edited version.
It’s impossible to defend the use of the N-word in any modern context. Gribben said that over his decades-long career even he has been reluctant to use the N-word in discussion with students.
But let’s get this straight: “Huckleberry Finn” is the work of a literary genius. It has been taught, and treasured, for decades, and will continue to be for decades more. “Huck Finn” is cherished for its story and Twain’s language, even if it includes the N-word. To be truly understood, and each character fully developed, it should be read in its original state.
Those people who have criticized Gribben’s editing perhaps should direct their concern to schools that are only willing to teach a sanitized version of Twain’s works. We live in a country where we fight to preserve the First Amendment, which values, among other rights, free speech. Teaching the Twain works in their original form is a good way to have students examine cultural influences and changing standards concerning a word that now is firmly taboo.
Nonetheless, is it better to simply remove these significant works from the curriculum than to teach them in an edited version? Whether or not critics agree with Gribben’s editing, they should get the whole story before passing judgment on his motives.