Literary debate

Is teaching Twain without the N-word better than not teaching it at all?

February 10, 2011


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 In Gribben’s version, the word has been replaced by “slave.”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.


Paul R Getto 7 years, 4 months ago

If we are willing to edit the curriculum for fear of controversy or because language offends, there will not be much left to teach and we will have demonstrated extreme cowardice at a time when we need deeper understanding of our past, how we got here and why we need to forge a path to the future together. This is a terrible idea and there will be no end to it if we start the censorship based on fear and ignorance.

Kris_H 7 years, 4 months ago

It is a terrible idea. Teach it the way it's written, and of course include a discussion ot "the N word," what it meant in Twain's day and even before, what it came to mean later, and why we don't use it any more, at least in polite conversation. I hate even writing "N word" instead of the actual word, but I don't supppose that one would get past the filters.

If you start trying to sanitize and "correct" all of literature, you might as well shut the libraries.

RoeDapple 7 years, 4 months ago

Would I want a cheese-less pizza? Cracker Jacks without the prize? Playboy without the centerfold? No, no, no. And No! Teach it as originally written. Racism doesn't begin with the reading of the works of Twain, it is the result of the example set by parents, peers and society, most of whom have probably never read Twain's works. How about this for a LJWorld OTS question? "What are your memories of the books of Mark Twain?" I'm guessing very few would say the use of the N-word.

By the way, I have never purchased a Playboy magazine or a book by Mark Twain. I have read a few of them though . . .

Eddie Muñoz 7 years, 4 months ago

You can't learn from past mistakes if you sanitize your history.

RoeDapple 7 years, 4 months ago

Is plagiarism going to be the new politically correct?

Fossick 7 years, 4 months ago

White didn't turn into "cracker," but replaced it. The original Crackers of Florida were English Immigrants who herded wild cattle for sale up the coast. They tended to be very poor and despised, thus the word became an insult when applied to other white Southerners who fancied themselves far above the cowboy's station.

The etymology of the word itself is in doubt, with some saying that it refers to the whip of the cattle drivers (other say it refers to the whip of the slave drivers). I personally think it comes from “Quáqueros," (i.e. "Quakers") what the nominal Spanish rulers of Florida called all Protestants.

FloridaSunshine 7 years, 4 months ago

As I stated three days ago, what you all don't know about the south is a lot!!!

FloridaSunshine 7 years, 4 months ago

Tom, I was born decades and decades ago...what do you mean by "merely augmented originally, then it became a bad word."?

Southerners and Northerners alike have used the horrible "N" word for exactly what it's supposed to be used for...to denigrate, to try to shame, to dehumanize...all done with derision against people with darker skin than most others in the U.S. It has always been a "bad word" as you put it, and always will be. You underestimate the power of a hate-filled word, Tom. As I stated in one of my posts three days ago, I have seen it all with my own eyes and heard it all with my own ears.

And as "Solomon" posted SO wisely three days ago (look it up in the archives or whatever if you missed it) we need to use Twain's language as a teaching tool for our youth. Solomon said more than that...he was brilliant in his discourse!!!!

The "N" word is the most disgusting word I can think of...but published works should not be tampered with...we must teach our children (with age appropriate information, of course) using even crass writings such as Twain's. I could hardly read his writings at all without great sorrow...his writings reinforced how I wanted my children to grow up with dignity and respect toward all human beings created in the image of God. It was a successful venture! And now my grandchildren...so far, so good. And not just good, but wonderful...!!!

FloridaSunshine 7 years, 4 months ago

Absolutely!!! They still think so little of themselves...even with all their bravado...very sad, actually.

FloridaSunshine 7 years, 4 months ago

deathpenaltyliberal...you might agree with Tom (and I also agree that published works should not be changed)...but I don't know how eager Tom will be to agree with your last sentence!! :~)

FloridaSunshine 7 years, 4 months ago

We recently went through all of this (quite a few posts were on February 7th)...Why are we going through it all again? Don't we have other topics to discuss now?

As for the Twain discussion, someone with the username "Solomon" had the best post with an actual solution three days ago...why are we seeing this topic up for the 2nd time within three days?

FloridaSunshine 7 years, 4 months ago

You're right, ophiuchus. I've noticed that especially with a certain person who is now visiting the land of the "hula"....he always gets his same ol' plugs in... HA! (Once, I thought I was in an LJW nightmare and couldn't wake up!! It was awful...)

FloridaSunshine 7 years, 4 months ago

My question exactly!! I thought it a very arrogant behavior...and I've known a few such people over the years. Strangely, they all remind me of each other!! HA! I think it's one of the few ways they can feel "important"...definitely a sign of low self-esteem.
There now...anyone else?

Laura Wilson 7 years, 4 months ago

Wow, a JW editorial I actually agree with.

We're so afraid of offending someone, we're trying to sanitize the world instead of addressing the issues head on. I'm a far left liberal non-Christian and I'm offended by not only the censorship and revision but the idea that our children need to be babied so incredibly much. As a child I read both books and watched Roots. None of that poisoned my mind--they opened it.

Liberty275 7 years, 4 months ago

We must cleans history so that we shall not be reminded of what we were. Four legs good, two legs better.

Liberty275 7 years, 4 months ago

Also, soylent green should be changed to soy beans.

Mark Kostner 7 years, 4 months ago

The work should be left alone. If rap songs can use the word why not a classic? Who's to say the word will not be in vogue at some point in the future. If you start censoring literature where will it end? Will democratic words and concept be removed as political incorrect?

Amy Heeter 7 years, 4 months ago

You can't hide racism or bigotry by burying it. If twain must be altered for acceptance sake then it is time to bury the other offensive parts of history. The letter from a certain jail also uses the n word. As a matter of fact this month celebrates it. Twain wrote from his experience in the same way as king and Hughes. None should be altered for correctness.

KansasPerson 7 years, 4 months ago

FloridaSunshine: "...we must teach our children (with age appropriate information, of course) using even crass writings such as Twain's..."

Wow. Twain's writings were "crass?" That's a new one.

FloridaSunshine 7 years, 4 months ago

Ummm....yeah! Anyone who knows a lot of his quotes would know he was a rather uncouth, crass sort of guy. I was fortunate enough to see Hal Holbrook as Twain (remarkable!) on stage. Ummmm....yeah, a lot of his repartee was crass...some people care for the uncouth...I don't. My opinion. You may have your opinion, ok?

Do you go around saying the "N" word? I don't and I grew up with a Dad from Alabama and a Mom from North Carolina. Never once heard the word come from their mouths. Nor any curse words. My siblings and I were taught dignity and vocabulary by example.

I went over a lot of this on this very thread...and a whole lot of it on February 7th and I'm really tired of repeating...I firmly believe no published work should ever be altered. Some people seem to think because I don't care for Twain, I believe his published works should be altered...NOT SO...which I have said several times.

The "N" word is crass...it's uncouth...it's disgusting...we all know that, so why are you questioning me with this...especially at this time of night when I just want to go to bed? You know what's decent and what's not...my seven-year-old granddaughter knows what's decent and what's not and here I am typing away at a grown person about what's crass as opposed to decent? If you've ever read anything about Twain or read his "quotes" perhaps in a "quote book"...you would know he could be quite crass...uncouth, whatever you want to call it...I do not have to appreciate every writer that you do...do I? I hope not. I do not care for Twain...never have...sorry to burst your bubble. It is painful deep in my heart to read Twain. If crass is a "new one" to you, used to describe Twain or his writings or his quips...good...now you have something to ponder.

Have a nice sleep. I truly apologize if I sound cranky...It's because I'm tired. (And I'm really tired of writing about Twain.) Interesting how you shortened my statement from my post with your quotation marks. I just noticed it. That's really lousy. Before you did that, it was clear I was talking about the "N" word. Shame on you, KP...have a little dignity about yourself.

bearded_gnome 7 years, 4 months ago

wonder how "crass" are the writings of "Fluoridesunshinboy?"

I can't believe you commenters and this foolish prof doing the editing and the despicable schoolboards missed the most important issue here: use of "ni--er" is key to the plot, sense of character and the themes of the stories! Ni--er Jim [look up this character] is in fact a hero, and a more reputable and reliable man than many of the whites who show up in the narrative!
thus, Twain meant some irony here.

yes, I said "irony."

look that up too!

Ni--er Jim is one of the greatest heroes in american literature.

sheesh! who's teaching in the schools these days anyway?

jaywalker 7 years, 4 months ago

Pathetic and sad. This move is right up there with teachers being forced to switch from red pens to pink or purple for correction, or the "no clap, no score" sports leagues for kids. Obviously we Americans should be coddled and pampered for the brainless wusses we are. Pathetic and sad.
And the KU grad's (dagnabit!) rationalization is a crock. If a school's too anally retentive to recognize the opportunity to teach with the original version then that's their shortcoming. Don't foist in on the rest of us.

FloridaSunshine 7 years, 4 months ago

@bearded_gnome...Do you think you're changing who I am at the core of my being by your pomposity? Go ahead and make fun of my thoughts and opinions if you must. I have repeated, I really don't know how many times, that I DO NOT believe in changing published works of literature. I do not care for Twain...must we agree on every piece of literature ever published? Must we each like the same writers? Make fun of me if that makes you feel, well, however it makes you feel. I don't understand where you and the others are coming from with your put-downs. I only wonder why you all would take this stance...and I am very surprised, I must say. I do not, never have, nor would I ever, believe in editing a published piece of literature. Writing and editing are the great loves of my life...why would I believe a published work should be changed?? If you're at all interested in knowing how and why I believe as I do, I'm sure you know how to find my previous posts about this matter. However, I cannot even imagine any of you taking the time to do that... My goodness, much to my dismay, I'm having a more difficult time with this than I thought I would. I have enjoyed all the agreeing and disagreeing for quite some time...but to question my integrity is a whole other issue.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.