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What would Mark Twain say? An Alabama publishing house is issuing a new edition of his novel Huckleberry Finn in which the word ?nigger? is replaced with the word ?slave.? (AP Photo/The Mark Twain House & Museum/AP Photo/The Mark Twain House & Museum)
What would Mark Twain say? An Alabama publishing house is issuing a new edition of his novel Huckleberry Finn in which the word ?nigger? is replaced with the word ?slave.? (AP Photo/The Mark Twain House & Museum/AP Photo/The Mark Twain House & Museum)


Huckleberry Finn was never supposed to be good for you Add to ...

It was heartening to see Adventures of Huckleberry Finn trending on Twitter this week, after NewSouth Books, an Alabama publishing house, revealed it is issuing a new edition of the classic in which the word "nigger" is replaced with the word "slave".

The comments on Twitter and elsewhere were overwhelmingly against these changes. One sentiment expressed repeatedly, in various wording, predominantly by people who (judging by their avatars) are black, is that " Huck Finn without 'nigger' is like Roots without whips."

It's hard to put the case better than that. Still, I think it's good to keep the new edition in perspective: Huckleberry Finn is in the public domain and consequently the changes are legal. Arguably, it's not censorship to change a book that is in the public domain - it's censorship to make an exception and not allow those changes to one edition of the book because we (mostly) don't like them.

Huckleberry Finn is one of the most frequently banned books in American history. It's like another national sport for them. It was banned from the start, and not always because of specific words. It is, even by contemporary standards, a dark, challenging book, not a simple story of a jolly interracial friendship on a river.

Simply put, Noddy Goes to Toyland is a racist children's book. Huckleberry Finn isn't racist and isn't a children's book at all. Its frequent classification as such might be the problem here.

I've never understood why Mark Twain's work became part of the American early-teen-lit canon (it's often taught in Grade 9). It's much the same way I'm surprised that Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, with its racist portrayal of Shylock, is so frequently assigned in high school. Which isn't to say it's not a really great play. It is. But Shakespeare wrote a lot of great plays, and I've often wondered if The Merchant of Venice isn't, at least in part, assigned because it allows teachers to talk about race, and not literature.

It's almost as though any book that doesn't contain an opportunity for moral censure, an improving message or at least many verifiable facts is considered a waste of class time.

As I recall it, when my children were in junior school, they read, or had read to them, almost nothing but books about girls escaping from Nazis. It's a whole genre of books - young people escaping from Nazis. It got to the point where I'd see my kids with a book and say, "What's her name?" I just knew.

Some of these books were good. Some weren't. I'm not sure anyone cared about the quality of the writing, as long as very young children knew about and thought about the Holocaust a great deal of the time, including almost all of the time they spent in reading class.

There was an observable shift in my children's Nazi reading. First, there was a period in which the weight of the Nazi element appeared to go mostly over their heads: The characters in the book might as well have been escaping to Witch Mountain for all they understood. Later, as they matured, at around the age of 10, my children's awareness increased and they were faced with the Holocaust, which really upset them.

While so far they show no genocidal tendencies whatsoever, I think much of that reading was pointless and frightening.

No one wants to be the parent to raise this issue, but it did occur to me that the class might also be directed toward books that weren't written to quell any growing Nazism in my children's innocent hearts or the equally innocent hearts of the other children on the monkey bars. They could just read good books or have good books read to them, and learn about Nazis later.

Consequently, I'm not inflamed by cries that if Huckleberry Finn isn't taught in schools, American children won't learn their history (the revising publishers raise that eventuality as the reason for their changes, and they're probably correct). There's another class for that. It's called History.

Huckleberry Finn is a novel. Which is a fine thing in itself, and if children learn to enjoy a fine thing for its own sake, they will find more fine things. They may even find Huckleberry Finn - perhaps not in school, but they will find it as it was intended to be found, somewhat cruel and disturbing, and with all its whips.

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Follow on Twitter: @TabathaSouthey

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