There’s a new wrinkle in the endless controversy about Huckleberry Finn, with NewSouth Books preparing an expurgated edition replacing “nigger” with “slave” throughout. Sentiment in the parts of the Internet I frequent is mostly against the change, which has been made with the goal of getting it back on high school reading lists, which it has fallen off in many places because of concerns over the language. (Note that it doesn’t appear to have been done in response to any great outcry for such an edition: “Mr. Gribben said no schools had expressed interest yet in teaching the book.”)
It’s a tough problem. On the one hand, you can say that this is a case of hypersensitivity taken to an unpleasant extreme, and that people should suck it up and look past the language to Twain’s actual point, which is profoundly anti-racist. Which is true as far as it goes, but the fact is people will get bothered, and they will complain, and schools and teachers have lots of other headaches to deal with. At some point you need to cut your losses.
The other main response is more or less what Sean Carroll says: “if, in the judgment of the teachers, this creates such a barrier that it does more harm than good to assign the book, the answer is extremely obvious — don’t assign the book.” But this raises some problems of its own, namely that it’s very difficult to talk about American literature without Twain, and if you’re going to teach Twain, this is the book to teach. He wrote other books– my 10th grade English class did Pudd’nhead Wilson (helpfully available from Google, complete with regrettable cover graphic), but that’s kind of minor– but in every respect but the language, Huckleberry Finn is an ideal book for high school (or even earlier– we read in when I was in fifth grade, believe it or not): many kids that age can relate to Huck, the message is unambiguous but not screechingly obvious, it’s tremendously entertaining, and it covers a historical era that continues to shape American life today. If one of the goals in teaching literature in school is to help students learn to understand where we are and how we got there, you ought to be teaching Huckleberry Finn, and there aren’t a lot of good substitutes.
So, it’s a tricky situation. On the one hand, it would be a real shame to see such a good book pushed into being something that’s only read by college or graduate students. But then again, it’s not hard to see why schools would decide that it’s not worth the hassle.
Either way, I’m inclined to think that editing the text to conform to modern sensibilities is a Bad Thing. The loss of the book from the curriculum is probably less bad than the precedent of scrubbing words that people don’t like. There aren’t any perfect replacements, but there are lots of other good books, and it’s probably not bad to shake up the curriculum a little every now and then. I can understand the impulse to do it, but I think it’s ultimately a mistake.
The real tragedy, here, is that there aren’t enough words considered hateful in The Scarlet Letter. Because I’d shed no tears over an effort to remove that godawful tedious crap from reading lists across the nation…