Tweaking Twain

A new edition of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, scheduled to be published in February by NewSouth Books, substitutes the word “slave” for the “n-word” and “Indian” for “injun” throughout the book.

The publisher has been accused of censorship and altering a classic of American literature for the sake of political correctness. Early argues that this is just another case of tinkering with texts in order to create a version that best serves its audience.

“We change texts all the time,” Early says. “For instance, we make children’s versions of the Bible, Homer and Shakespeare.

Nah, this is different. These aren’t simplified versions, these are altered versions.

“We have abridged versions of many books for all sorts of reasons. Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus tales have been revised, rewritten, the dialect changed for modern readers.”

If you want to make a shorter version for the easily bored, that’s okay, but this is not that either.

Early says that removing the “n-word” from Huckleberry Finn is just that kind of abridgement.

“People do not have to accept it, and they can show their displeasure by simply not buying and reading this abridgment,” he says.

Maybe, but this also depends on how the work is sold. Will people really know they are buying a version Twain didn’t intend? Hopefully they will disclose the edits in a forward, but I doubt they’ll add a disclaimer to the cover.

“Many times abridgments are made that are unwise or unwarranted or unjustified. Sometimes not. Let the public decide in this instance, as it does in all others.”

(via Tweaking Twain OK as long as original version still available, WUSTL professor says – news.wustl.edu)

The BBC did a good piece.

Dr Sarah Churchwell, a lecturer on American literature, told the BBC that it made a mockery of the story.

“It’s about a boy growing up a racist in a racist society who learns to reject that racism, and it makes no sense if the book isn’t racist,” she told BBC World Service’s Newshour programme. “You can’t make the history of racism in America go away.”

(via Furore over ‘censored’ edition of Huckleberry Finn – bbc.co.uk)

The article says that the book uses ‘the n-word’ 219 times. You can read them all on Project Gutenberg.

I thought this would make an interesting Ngram experiment:

N-word n-grams

Injun‘ hardly registers, and ‘Indian‘ wouldn’t be a fair comparison anyway. Check out the spike in the Blaxploitation 70’s.

(Illustration at top from Better Book Titles. It’s not directly related. Disclaimer for the easily confused: I don’t enjoy the use of any racist language or negative stereotyping, but believe there is a place for historical context.)

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