Do we take the N-word out of Twain?

The local station ran a "good question" piece (where they address some question they deem as good) to ask: "Is it OK to edit a classic" but they really were speaking of "is it OK to take the N-word out of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" (and, as one proposal goes, replace it with the word "slave.")

I would love to know what you think. The web page with this piece has a number of comments already. Here's a sampling, labeled by me in Categories of Complaint:

The reference to arbitrary overarching roolz that always apply to everything:

No, it's not ever OK to edit a classic.

The Domino Theory:

Editing is just another way to say they are censoring what you or i or anyone else can read! whether it is politically correct today or not, this book was written in time when such stuff was the norm. so i say hands off!! or tell me what you are going to edit next!!!

Appeal to higher standards in places where they aren't, and Fear of the Oriental:

This is far worse then when Steven Speelturd edited the guns into walky-talkies in the new release of ET. They are destroying the historical nature and true words of the book. I would expect this in China but not here.

Link idea to Libruls and thus identify it as wrong:

Liberal Elites run everything, this is wrong on so many levels. There are many things I would like to see edited, particularily when my faith has been attacked by some "artist" and their vulger displays. Someone let me know how I can get things edited, it didn't take much effort for this guy.

If I scream at you you'll back off:


The If We Don't Do This It Will Hurt Really Bad So Let's Not Do It So It Hurts Really Bad argument:

It is important to leave books as written by the author, especially ones with such historical significance. There is a reason that we need to avoid using the N-word, and it isn't because rappers use it, they are taking back the term and empowering themselves with it (that doesn't mean it is alright for us white folk to say it). It is because it was part and parcel of a culture which enslaved an entire people based on color and treated them as beasts of burden. We need to see and be reminded that culture existed and that it's consequences have echoed into the future. Slave is still a weighted term, but the N-word demonstrates slavery was not simply a prison class of people, but a people treated as non-human. We should not shy away from confronting the horrors humans have inflicted upon each other simply to make the conversation easier. If schools are not prepared to teach complicated issues, one wonders what the point of their existence is. Real education is not just spelling and arithmetic, computers can do that for us, it is critical thinking.

Appeal To The Sanctity Of What I Know the Founding Fathers Were Thinking:

Wasn't our country founded on the principles of "freedom of speech" and "freedom of the press"? Censorship is what the Nazis did in WWII and it's what happens in socialist/communist nations. Do we really want to go there?

The Don't Ever Ignore Reality (and if you don't agree with me you're stupid) argument:

Not OK-definitely. Shall we just ignore history and modify the way things were, or acknowledge it and learn from it? Duh-the choice is simple.

The If You Libruls Don't Shut Up We'll Ban YOU!!!11!! argument:

Liberals and their thought and speech police. You can't even bring yourself to use THE word in your story. The N word. The F word. When people read this you think the real word doesn't appear in their minds? Pretty soon the L word will be banned. The only words OK are those that disparage the things or people that liberals want disparaged.

And so on.

Now, while you are mulling over these comments, let me mention this: I read the comments on this web site for many stories, because this is where I live and I want to have an idea of what people are thinking. I can tell you with certainty that the vast majority of commenters on WCCO are deeply and often overtly racist. You know that most "liberals" (academics in the language and critical areas), including me, generally prefer to NOT edit things, and conservatives are all about telling others what to think. And you can see the language used in these comments. Clearly, screaming that "nigger" be used in a text that we require our children to read is not for these folks an issue of censorship. It is an issue of forcing kids of color to be uncomfortable in our classrooms.

There may be many different reasons that people want to see Twain left untouched, but one of them is a clearly racist reason. I myself think the word can be safely removed from this text, if the text is important enough to teach in schools to younger kids. The fact that it is removed can be explained and discussed. It can be an isolated experiment that will not cause civilization to end.

Or not. But then, it is not entirely unreasonable to chose among the many possibilities a different text. Maybe something by Annie Burton or perhaps Bethany Veney's narrative.

Some insight from the use of the "K-word" (which is Kaffir, the equivalent to Nigger in South Africa). I once ran across this work on a menu in a chain restaurant. I got it removed.

In the old days, "Kaffir" came to mean, in southern Africa, any of the dark skinned native people who lived there (in other words, southern Africans not from Europe or various parts of Asia). It has a more complex history that this, but what I just said is true. I have maps that show "Kaffir land" in areas that are known to have been non-colonized regions, for instance. The fact that it was common for Europeans to think of Africans as inferior (a feeling that is still found among the white folks, even the educate ones links "kaffir" to this sort of racism, but it is probably true that "kaffir" was just the word that as used in this context, much like "nigger" in the 19th century in certain contexts. But, that sense of racism has become isolated in modern times and identified as wrong. And thus, "nigger" and "kaffir" both have become justifiably vilified as words.

This does not justify removing the words from old literature at all. But, in the case of stories of the day used in school to illustrate 19th century literature in middle school or high school English classes, there seems to be no great harm. This is nota matter of "allowing censorship" and leading us to the edge of some great abyss. It is simply avoiding the result of making a lot of people feeling uncomfortable. I'm pretty sure that an argument to insist on keeping the "nigger" in Twain is just as often made as a matter of racism as it is a matter of protecting our literature from Bowdlerization.

More like this

Well, there's a reason I don't often read news comments.

On the other hand, the reasonable commentary I have seen is very close to your but generally comes down on the side of leaving the book as is. The reason? They believe the conversation is difficult and uncomfortable enough that it simply won't happen in classes unless it is required to justify the use of the word in a book taught there. If the word simply vanishes, no justification is required. They would prefer to opt for the discomfort of everybody involved if it forces a conversation to continue happening.

A fair number of people would agree with you about teaching a different book, by the way. Twain didn't intend this book for kids.

This is a new low, even for this blog.

Yes, let's teach our kids that censorship is okay in cases where it's necessary to make someone more 'comfortable' with the material, and less likely to offend them. [/sarcasm]

By Neon Sequitur (not verified) on 07 Jan 2011 #permalink

The word should be changed. At least in grade school editions. The original will always exist.

Language changes. That's just a fact. In the text in question, 'n---r' is used in a non-offensive way, i.e., no character in the book uses it as a slur or is insulted in hearing it. If anyone thinks that the word has not changed it's meaning, go ahead and try using it and see if anyone gets offended. They will.

The primary reason for changing it, in my opinion, is that we are sending huge mixed signals to a very young audience that does not have the full historical knowledge needed to understand it. I did not grow up in a racist home and, when I was younger, I did not understand just how much racism is still alive in the world. So, we have children that are hearing 'n---r' at home, and not in any 'historical' context. They are told by others that it's not appropriate, but then given a text that uses it apologetically. The context they have is what they hear at home.

For those that are erudite and scholarly enough to know what the word meant in it's original context: good for you. But, just accept that not everyone does.

Stephanie, I can also conclude that it should be left in. What I'm questioning is that editing a text is the beginning of the end of the world.

The Count of Monte Christo routinely has multiple chapters removed. We stopped complaining about colorized movies years ago (most people under 20-something don't even realize they've been subjected to that).

But, quite specifically, I'm saying that the "don't touch the n-word" argument can be, and sometimes is, not an act of anti-censorship but only disguised as such.

Leave the "n-word" in. Twain used it for good reason - it conveys the context in a way that the proposed substitutions (e.g. "slave") don't. Substitutions do nothing to improve the story, and are likely to diminish its impact.

Schools can choose another book. There's no shortage of excellent, engaging literature (even other works by Twain!) that is less likely to offend students and/or their parents. There's no need to sanitize the world down to the level of an eighth grader.

Non: Nice. You don't like this blog yet you come here to make statements of condemnation. Thought police anyone?

I don't think a book originally with the word "Nigger" on every page, with a preface explaining why it is changed to "Slave" quite fits the definition of censorship. Rather, it raises the issue off censorship and allows this discussion to happen.

Non, can you demonstrate that you are NOT one of those just trying to jam the word Nigger into the faces of black kids in middle school? Or, cann you try for cogent argument that I'm wrong about that being one of the motivations for insisting on leaving it in? I mean, I could be wrong about that. It's just an idea that I've proposed. And, it's an idea that you're shouting down as though you would prefer it not be made. As though you would prefer ... it be censored. Please show me how you are not being an unmitigated ass.

BTW, I've not read this in years. I'd have to look at the text again and see where Nigger does work no other word can do. It may well be the case.

And another thing: My imagined hypothetical version of the book would leave Nigger in one of the chapters, just at it was, several chapters in. That would allow for an interesting discussion.

Neon Sequitur this isn't a low at all. Unless you have been living under a rock the public school systems have practiced censorship in teaching materials.

I would like to see the book untouched because it shows Jim to be very noble despite the label.

Would it be the end of the world? Of course not. Les Miserables has also been reduced from it's original size, but I enjoy the unreduced volume much more.

By Jeff Sherry (not verified) on 07 Jan 2011 #permalink

That word, with all its connotations to the modern ear, spoken so casually -- that captures the whole point of the book, I think.

I especially hate the idea of replacing it with "slave", which means something entirely different (even if the categories were mostly overlapping in that time and place).

You know that most "liberals" (academics in the language and critical areas) generally prefer to NOT edit things, and conservatives are all about telling others what to think.

You know that, and I know that, but the idea that liberals are a bunch of would-be censors is a standard meme among conservatives. They refer to it as "political correctness", and sometimes even speak of "the political correctness movement" (of course there is no such thing). The rest of us think of it as "How about you not be such a jerk?". Mainly, they want license to be overtly racist, sexist, etc., and they call opposition to such sentiments "political correctness" because they assume that, deep down, most people think like they do, but are just afraid to say so. Yeah, right.

I'm generally of the opinion that texts should be left in their original form (I'm not a great fan of modernised spellings, for instance), and any and all issues raised by the text discussed in class when they arise. Yes, this may mean discussion of politics or social history in an Eng. Lit. class, but teaching kids that real-world concerns don't neatly fit in the school subject pigeonholes is itself an important lesson. I can remember several interesting discussions of women's issues arising from passages that made the teenage girls in my class very uncomfortable; on the other hand, the texts took us to places we wouldn't necessarily have gone to if we'd stayed in our comfort zones. If the kids aren't mature enough to cope with the text as it stands, give them age appropriate material instead!

By stripey_cat (not verified) on 07 Jan 2011 #permalink

It does look like this is partly an issue of age and maturity and theme. There should be no question whatsoever of leaving books alone (including spelling and usage of yore) unless the audience is too young to make it work.

I especially hate the idea of replacing it with "slave", which means something entirely different (even if the categories were mostly overlapping in that time and place).

That's not really true, if you take a look at the text. The words are effectively synonyms in that context.

Greg, thanks for this. I have been kind of frustrated by the intense knee-jerk reaction I've seen among my friends. I think Huck Finn is a brilliant book -- but I know a lot of black kids hate it, because it is genuinely painful for them to read the n-word over and over and over. They are not missing the point of the book; they get it. They know that what they are supposed to see is that Huck, who has been raised by racist people in a racist society and has never really questioned this racism, ultimately realizes the same thing that the reader noticed by about page 10, which is that Jim is far the most humane and human individual in the book. They get this. That doesn't mean that reading the most vicious epithet in our language (over! and over!) is something they can get past, especially at age thirteen. (Or maybe fourteen. It depends on the district. But it is a book given to young teenagers to read, because it's a great classic but is accessible in a lot of important ways: it's funny, there's a good adventure story, etc. It's a hell of a lot accessible to a black kid, however.)

The original text will still be available. Always. I think it would be useful to have the edited version available for English classes and let students choose their version and then discuss their choice, either in a class discussion or in written form. But yes, I do honestly think that black kids who have to read this book should at least have the option of reading a version where they're not being slapped in the face with a vicious epithet multiple times per page.

Argh, I meant that to say a hell of a lot LESS accessible to a black kid.

The age-appropriateness issue is a big one. I'm pretty sure it was an 8th or 9th grade book in my school district when I was a kid, for the reasons I outlined above: good adventure story, characters you can connect with easily, etc.

but I know a lot of black kids hate it, because it is genuinely painful for them to read the n-word over and over and over.

Though I point out that this question came up as part of the local news, it was actually a conversation with a former black kid who works with black kids and other educators that moved me to write the post. Pretty much, if you're black, you've given up on those particular books. Which is fine, but should be recoginzed.

For background, I've been reading to my son every night since he was born (8 now). I have verbally edited many things as I was reading to him. For example in reading books from the Redwall series 'killing' and 'murder' were read as 'got' or 'made them go away'.

I started reading Tom Sawyer at one point but decided early on to give up on it. It required too much editing on my part to keep the story going lucidly and fluidly. I could have read all the niggers, but I did not want that term to be a part of his lexicon at this point. I am happy to discuss it with him and use it as a teaching moment, but giving a 6 year old (at the time) a verbal weapon like nigger seems akin to telling him where the gun is in case he needs to defend himself.

What is odd is that the question even exists. What is stopping a publisher from publishing a kid-friendly version? or any other version. Fuck, the bible gets reedited every few decades why can't Twain? I mean you can still find Latin version of the bible, even if you own a Kings James version.

Nobody even seems to ask, 'how is it being used?'. Is it as a kid friendly book to throw out there and let them read? Is it being used to teach about racial attitudes in 19th century America? Is the teacher, probably an English teacher, able to answer questions about race? Or language drift? If not, provide a modern version. Once the kids become Twain-heads, following Mark Twain revivals around the country, they can become purists.

I love Twain, and am just about to crack into his nearly 1,000 page autobiography, but using a children's book for a case against censorship just seems silly to me.

Victor, those are all valid elements of the discussion.

I think the autobiography is just over 700 pages. But, that is volume 1 of 3, I believe. You've got your work cut out for you!

Solomon splitting the baby: produce two editions; one removing the word, with an afterward noting that removal and giving the arguments why, the other keeping it with a similar corresponding afterward. Possibly the afterwards might touch on recommendations for when use of each might be more suitable (such as varying student age, race, region, et cetera).

For extra giggle value, make the two covers identical except for ISBN and UPC.

I'm for more in favor of editing that NFL team from Washington DC.

By Rich Wilson (not verified) on 07 Jan 2011 #permalink

I remember reading edited, but richly annotated, versions of Shakespeare's plays in elementary school. In some cases, the annotations offered swaths of the original texts, with explanations regarding the reasoning behind the editors' changes, all of which were intended to render Shakespeare accessible to young readers. Those editions certainly did not decrease my appreciation for Shakespeare and they did a good job of providing context for the plays. I see no reason why the same approach should not be used for age-appropriate versions of any works of literature, including Twain's.

By ancientTechie (not verified) on 07 Jan 2011 #permalink

I think that replacing "nigger" with "slave" does serious violence to the book as a work of literature. Twain's particular talent was in writing dialog that accurately set down the way people actually talked. They don't use the n-word so much these days, but casual cruelty and malicious humor are just the way people in that part of the country communicate. A joke is not considered really funny there unless it involves inflicting physical pain.

That said, it is a form of cruelty to make it required reading for black kids, and maybe not a good idea for white kids either. Plenty of other good books for them to read in the meantime.

By CherryBomb (not verified) on 07 Jan 2011 #permalink

Greg, I don't have to "prove" anything to you. Not everyone who disagrees with you on this is some kind of closet racist -- some of us just don't like censorship.

I read Finn in high school, and at the time I found Twain's language shocking and offensive. But more importantly, I learned a hell of a lot from being shocked and offended -- which is also why I read your blog, BTW. Where else would I see someone advocating for the censored version of classic novel throwing around comments about 'thought police' without a hint of irony?

By Neon Sequitur (not verified) on 07 Jan 2011 #permalink

Once again GLB wrangles the blogosphere for support over its intellectual dishonesty... and finds a modicum of it within a discordant universe of ideological swine. On this day found basking among warming thoughts of books burnt by the word at 451°F.

By Bill James (not verified) on 07 Jan 2011 #permalink

Keep the "N" word. It's contextual for that time. Other classics use the term "savages" which to me seems worse. A while back I read some Robert E Howard and cringed every time I read that word. Maybe it was just the context too (Solomon Kane)

I read a lot of 19th and early 20th century material related to Africa (all of it linked to Central Africa) and that stuff is full of both the terminology and the attitude of white and western superiority.

A good question to ask, emerging from this discussion, is: How much racism and sexism is routinely found in the literature we are assigning to our kids, and what are we doing about it?

Maybe they could replace every instance of "nigger"
with "fucker." Nowadays it won't offend, and at least the pejorative thrust would be preserved.

Neon Sequitur: No sense of irony!?!?!? I find that terribly ironic.

Here's the thing. I'm hearing three kinds of comments.

1) Change it or drop it, who needs it anyway.

2) Leave it and use the context and the offensive nature to teach and learn


When I'm speaking face to face with someone, and I hear number 1, the face is generally a brown one. When I estimate the angle linked to number 3, as I mention in the post, I'm sensing racism. (See the post ... the same community of commenters who wanted to throw the dirty fucking mexicans into prixon on an INS related post a few days earlier are screaming for blood because people don't like the word nigger.) Most people seem to be at number 2, which is where I would have placed myself until recently when I started to put this into perspective.

I see someone advocating for the censored version of classic novel throwing around comments about 'thought police' without a hint of irony?

Was I? Please read the title of the post. It is a question. Within a 36 hour period I had a conversation that revelaed to me the opinion of a number of Black Americans about the issue, highly educated ones in the business of education, I might add (but speaking on a personal level) and saw the crazy racist people on our local WS news thread screaming that we needed to have more Nigger in school. I think that is food for thought.

Don't you think?

phht, I was thinking of that. The robotic substitution of "slave" seemed too easy and not very sensible. A variety of offensive but acceptable terms, substituted with some degree of editorial wisdom.

Don't touch a hair on that book's head! Twain was a brilliant writer, who chose every word with extreme care, so that each sentence would convey precisely the meaning and subtext he intended. He could've written 'slave' had he chosen to; the word existed in his day. He chose not to.

What's next? Do the Language Police want to go after Shakespeare or Chaucer?

By Pete Moulton (not verified) on 07 Jan 2011 #permalink

Several comment here exhibit exactly why it should be taken out.

The term âsavagesâ is not worse than the n-word. The term âsavagesâ has never been used as a derogatory term the way the n-word has been and still is.

The attitude that people who are disrespected by being called the n-word or by seeing the n-word in print should âget over itâ completely misses the point. The only time someone should âget overâ being gratuitously disrespected is when they are no longer gratuitously disrespected. Has it happened in US society that blacks are never gratuitously disrespected? No?

Then telling blacks to âget overâ being gratuitously disrespected while they are still being gratuitously disrespected is simply another form of gratuitous disrespect. It is telling them that the gratuitous disrespect doesn't matter because their feelings don't matter because they don't matter. This gratuitous disrespect comes from being unable to empathize with the object of the disrespect, from being unable to understand the disrespected person enough to even appreciate that they feel disrespected.

I think this is analogous to the mansplaining that goes on, but as a man, I can't be sure.

Pete, Twain's most popular books come to us having been heavily edited and/or rewritten by him following the demands of his editors. (I wonder if he goes into that in his autobiography). I know we like to think of author's words as sacred but it is a bit of a fetish.

And of course, he was a great writer and all, but his books are those of an old dead white guy writing about a racist, slave-holding south being read by students in a country where white is soon to become the new minority (about time, really).

I should mention, by the way, that one of the most significant and possibly effective writings against the Belgian genocide in the Congo was his. So while I can see and understand African Americans putting him aside, that commitment to international justice should be remembered.

I think there is only one way to draw the poison from a word like "nigger": use it. Co-opt it. Listen to it.

If you don't like it (I don't), don't ever say it without those quotation marks. But don't try to suppress its use.

If we can talk about a word, make reference to it as a thing, however offensive, we can draw some of its venom by use of our intellects.

Suppression of a word just lets the poison fester.

NoNoNoNoNo and NO! As an African-American I say Do not touch that wonderful classic tale. It should be read in every junior high school along with the history of the Civil War. I have to think that the people objecting have never read the book. It is an ANTI-racist and PRO-abolitionist story. If the teacher is not capable of guiding her students through the book, s/he should not be a teacher. I read it (we had it on our bookshelf) in elementary school, and understood THAT!

Even though I first read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when I was a kid, I don't think of it as a book for kids. I've taught it in sophomore-level college lit classes, and even many of those students have trouble with Twain's humor (they just don't get the jokes) and with seeing some of the secondary themes of the novel (the camp-meeting scene mocks down-home religion).

I wouldn't give the novel to middle schoolers, and I'd hesitate to give it to high schoolers. It's not an easy book.

Since I teach nominal grownups, I wouldn't use an edition that replaces "nigger" with "slave" or other words. It matters that Huck sees Jim as a nigger even when and after he decides to free him. Huck isn't an abolitionist; he doesn't outgrow racism. He takes the first, tiny moral step by seeing the humanity of one particular nigger, and perhaps by seeing the humanity of the Wilks's slaves when the Duke and Dauphin sell them. I can get college students to understand these things.

I don't think any other word will do in the following exchange:

Huck: "It warn't the grounding--that didn't keep us back but a little. We blowed out a cylinder-head."

Aunt Sally: "Good gracious! anybody hurt?"

Huck: "No'm. Killed a nigger."

And right there we see the evil that infects us and which we must overcome.

Incidentally, I live in the Bible Belt, and many of my students are less offended by "nigger" than by Twain's treatment of religion. His irreverence appalls them, especially his portrayal of believers at the camp-meeting as witless dupes and his suggestion that Huck cannot find the moral guidance he needs in conventional religion. I've had students raise their hands and ask, "But Twain was a Christian, wasn't he?"

I suggest they peruse Letters from the Earth.

Greg says,

I should mention, by the way, that one of the most significant and possibly effective writings against the Belgian genocide in the Congo was his. So while I can see and understand African Americans putting him aside, that commitment to international justice should be remembered.

Yep. When I assign Heart of Darkness, I assign King Leopold's Soliloquy, too. I tell students to read Twain first and to look at the photographs he used for as long as they can bear to. Then they believe me when I say that everything in Heart of Darkness, including even the heads on posts, is a genteel understatement about the Belgian Congo circa 1900.

Art: Doyle wrote a major piece as well, but as rhetorical prose rather than cynicism soaked poetry.

I went to work in the Congo only vaguely aware of any of this, and bumped into a copy of the Soliloquy by accident, and read it.

Well one thing is for sure, I am positive that Twain would have loved the dust up. He was thrilled to find that a library had banned the book positive that it would cause the sale of several thousand to people who wanted to see why it was banned.

The Heart of Darkness is beautifully terrifying but racist at it's core. If my daughter picks it up I won't stop her from reading it or censor it in any way.

I mentioned Robert E Howard's use of the term "savages", he did not use the term "nigger" (that I know of) but I have no doubt that he was a racist. Twain used the "N" word but I really doubt that he was a racist.

I am reluctant to agree to mutilating a classic, especially since I assume that one of the prime purposes for teaching this book is historical. Changing 'nigger' changes history. This is how people talked at the time and pretending otherwise won't change it.

On the other hand I am not American and I am aware that the racial situation in the USA is largely beyond my comprehension although god knows I try.

The term âsavagesâ has never been used as a derogatory term the way the n-word has been and still is.

For example my first reaction to this statement was to argue with it. 'Savages' is certainly derogatory and meant to be so, but whether it is worse than 'nigger' I am really not qualified to say. Personally I would have thought it was but apparently not. 'Savage' implies a whole lot of stuff that I would find extremely offensive. But I do feel that if the situation over there is so bad that black kids feel 'slapped in the face' every time they read that word then you sure do have a lot of work to do, even if you do have a black president.
I guess you'll just have to sort it out amongst yourselves. Good luck.

Huckleberry Finn is not a children's book. Its protagonist is a child. Big difference.

I'm in the "keep Twain's language intact and use it as a teaching tool" school. And by use it as a teaching tool, I mean, spend as much time as necessary for students to understand the context, and the point.

Is the word itself really the offensive thing in the scene in which a woman asks Huck whether anyone was hurt in the steamboat accident (I think) he's just invented and he says, "No ma'am--killed a nigger," and she replies, "Well, that's good, because sometimes people do get hurt"? *

If you're going to teach that book, then teach it, and give children the background, context, and support they need to fully understand and process it without feeling demeaned. If you can't do that, fine, don't use that text--choose something else instead.

I do get what Greg is saying--not the end of the world, a lot of the people claiming to stand against censorship are really just racists--but, looking back on my own education, it's the most difficult books (and I mean difficult as in "emotionally and intellectually challenging", not just big-words difficult,) were ultimately the most important, the ones that changed me and became part of how I see the world. Huckleberry Finn was one of them.

* From memory, apologies if I got the detail wrong here.

By moonkitty (not verified) on 07 Jan 2011 #permalink

I'll vote NO, and HELL NO.

It's important literature that shouldn't be tampered with. As with many other such cases where offensive, obscene, vulgar, and otherwise unacceptable language is used. If that means that a book should wait to be read by older students in later years of school, or should wait until a college course, fine.

Writers choose their words carefully for their effects on the thoughts and feelings of readers. Writers also reflect the cultures in which they live. Studying literature means studying the writers' actual words, not a bowdlerized version thereof.

It's legitimate to get informed consent: for example with disclosures about racist language, vulgar slang as ordinarily defined, explicit sex, and explicit violence, so that readers may choose for themselves. And it's legitimate for a reader to skip over passages that might upset them in some way.

At some point in the future, with books on improved digital media, it might be possible for individuals to use a software app that lets them redact words they don't want to see. That would also be legitimate since it was under the control of the individual reading the book and did not seek to impose that person's sensibilities on others (any more than if they skipped over passages that were too graphic for their taste). The same could be done for films if they were appropriately coded.

The key difference here is between empowering individual readers and viewers (OK), and tampering with authors and directors (not OK).

It's not a difficult issue. Teach children that words change, and that authors create characterisation with dialog. Have a class discussion, and read the book in the light of what's just been learned.

Unless you think children are too stupid to understand, in which case, why are you giving them books at all?

"Other classics use the term "savages" which to me seems worse. A while back I read some Robert E Howard and cringed every time I read that word. Maybe it was just the context too (Solomon Kane)"

Erm, yes, it was the context, seeing as the stories were set in 16th Century Africa, and the savages in question were tribesmen. Howard used the same term for white barbarians like the Picts.

That book is where I learned the word. Didn't learn what it meant. I did have an idea what it meant though. Judging by contest I thought it was the title of a job, like teacher or cobbler. I knew on some level it didn't make complete sense, but I wasn't sure what else it could've meant.

God....that was an interesting and confusing book report...

I don't think it should be changed...but should it be accessible to the young through the school?
No. I would save it for older students. Hell maybe even have this discussion in the classroom. Definitely leave it in though, just make sure you give it to children able to understand it and the serious discussions that will inevitably follow.

I haven't read the book since 4th grade, but will definitely have to get back to it once I finish my current readings.

By Drivebyposter (not verified) on 07 Jan 2011 #permalink

Yeah it's all context. I don't cringe every time I read the word "savage" (Howard uses the term differently with the Conan books BTW) just like I don't cringe whenever I read the word "nigger". Nor do not think they carry the same meaning, and I never implied that. I guess you'll just have to read the Soloman Kane stories to see what I mean. I would feel uncomfortable reading it out loud to my daughter but not Huck Finn. But that's just me.

I have to learn to stay away from these kinds of topics online: I'm too lazy or inept to explain myself clearly :^)

I'm very much in the 'use it as a teaching tool, and if that's not possible then either the kids or the teacher aren't ready for it so don't use it at all'-camp.

Literature is a loaded weapon and should only be handled after careful instruction.

But then, I am not an American so for me, the n-word does not have the connotations it has for those on your side of the pond.

In the Netherlands, we have our own n-word (basically the same, but substitute the gs with ks) but no one uses that anymore. I think the reason it is still so painful in the USA is that there ia a part of the population still using yours. Better change that, instead of a good book, no?
(Yes, I'm very aware that we Dutch have our own racism issues. Don't get me started...)

Anecdote: as a kid I read edited (and translated) versions of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.
I completely failed to see why anyone would like them. They weren't funny. They didn't make any interesting points.

Then, I read the original, and...

Well, let's just say I find myself in the 'please don't touch it' school of thought.
Very much so.
(I'm not saying this anecdote is relevant to the discussion, I'm only explaining why I find myself on this side of the issue. Seeing the difference between the two versions was quite an experience.)

By Tyrone Slothrop (not verified) on 08 Jan 2011 #permalink

I think the reason it is still so painful in the USA is that there ia a part of the population still using yours. Better change that, instead of a good book, no?

Ideally we could change the people that use the term in a hateful way, but I think America is too big for that type of change to occur quickly. We basically have to wait for the worst people to die off and have children slightly more intelligent than them. It may be why America lags behind in so many ways.

By Drivebyposter (not verified) on 08 Jan 2011 #permalink

Writers choose their words carefully for their effects on the thoughts and feelings of readers.

I've seen this argument made a few times now as a reason not to change a book. This is may be a good reason not to edit a contemporary book, but it is fallacious when applied to the question of editing a historic book. Due to changes in context and language, we can already be sure that the author's words do *not* have "precisely the impact the author intended" on a *modern* audience.

Therefore it should definitely be open to discussion whether there should be a modernized edition, that *is* aimed towards a specific effect in a modern audience - and it may well be decided that this will still require the use of some offensive words. The original will still be available, and footnotes or endnotes can be used to explain the changes. This makes the work accessible at a lower level, while still allowing to compare and contrast the historic and modern contexts at a higher level.

Of course, the problem of doing this is that it is difficult to get right. It requires that the editors are at least as talented as the original author, and likely even more so. And it seems you always lose something in translation.

Greg, you've been pretty reasonable lately. But, I knew it was only a matter of time before you said something nutty. I think they key to this story is to look at who was made to feel uncomfortable.

By Isis the Scientist (not verified) on 08 Jan 2011 #permalink

Isis, I'd really like your opinion about Twain and the N-word, but you've given me a riddle. Please tell me what you think.

It would be nice if you could avoid couching what you say in the perpetual qualification that "Greg is somehow doing it wrong" as well, just so we could keep the conversation on the topic instead of on the drama of the blogosphere.

It mattered to me that Black American students and educators with whom I was speaking were made to feel uncomfortable by the repeated use of the word "n...." in a classroom. I am pretty sure I'm right that a good measure of the most reactionary screaming about not touching the sacred N-word comes from a gang that I'm pretty sure is a mighty-white racist anti-Latino anti-African American crowd (see the quotes in the OP). Those two factors made me put aside my own presumption (to not touch the text) and caused me to ask the question about avoiding the un-bowdlerized text in middle school and, depending, high school classrooms by using a modified version in those specific contexts.

When I read your comment, I simply cannot parse what piece of this you are speaking to, or what you mean.

More broadly speaking: were I to summarize my current feeling about this, having read comments here (and from some other thinking and sources), were I in charge of literature I'd leave the text alone, but as long at the race conversation that we currently see (or at least that I currently see here in Minnesota) in public middle schools and high schools stays as it currently is, recommend not using the text at all except in advanced and AP level English classes. That would probably satisfy what needs to be satisfied and do what needs to be done.

Stephanie, I missed your comment while I was replying to Isis. Perhaps you can tell me what she means because you seem to have parsed it. (But don't get it wrong or we'll have a flame war, and a blog post on a controversial topic is no place for a flame war!!!)

This is a real problem. I have to say that, as a linguist, I come down on the side of leaving the word in and teaching the book when kids are mature enough to receive a lesson about the power of language, as well as lessons on the historical context that Twain intended this book to evoke. The kids should be mature enough to get that the word was used in certain ways, and is now used in other ways. Come to think of it maybe it should be taught in college, rather than high school, I'd have to think about that some more.

Oh man, here's what I'd like to see: a movie of Huck Finn made by the Coen brothers!

Oh man, here's what I'd like to see: a movie of Huck Finn made by the Coen brothers!


Isis, I do not see what is 'nutty' about taking into account the fact that African Americans are not sanguine with hiding a very objectionable term's use behind the sacred nature of a White American Literature. I am as against censorship as anyone else, but avoiding censorship and being sensitive are not exclusive. I can only guess you are unaware of the severity of the pain associated with that word. If this was a matter of Latino denigration, would your opinion shift?

By Elizabeth (not verified) on 08 Jan 2011 #permalink

Greg, I will happily write something in reply. I don't think you're doing it wrong, but I do think that here you are wrong. It is more painful to erase a history and pretend it didn't happen then to be remind of it. I think it is important to look at who is claiming that they are made uncomfortable by the word "nigger" in this classic text. The editor of the new edition is a white 50+ year old male faculty member. He states in an interview with NPR:

I believe that a significant number of school teachers, college instructors, and general readers will welcome the option of an edition of Twainâs fused novels that spares the reader from a racial slur that never seems to lose its vitriol.

He has not edited the book in response to the pain the word causes African Americans. He has done it because it makes him feel uncomfortable everytime it reads it. It should make him feel uncomfortable. Slavery was one of the darkest moments in human history and that feeling of discomfort every time we read that word reminds us that we can never let it happen again.

In response to Elizabeth, I am very aware of the pain caused by the use of racial slurs. I would feel the same way if it were a slur aimed at Hispanics. It is important to remember where we came from and where we are going.

By Isis the Scientist (not verified) on 08 Jan 2011 #permalink

The point of Huck Finn saying "nigger" a lot--especially at the beginning of the book--is to make it clear how ignorantly bigoted he is. As the narrative proceeds, Huck engages the process of recognizing and--to some extent--pushing back against his own ignorance and bigotry. Substituting "slave" for "nigger" in Huck's speech elides this key aspect of the book.

BTW, I came down firmly on the side of "don't fucke with art, and especially don't fucke with Mark Twain":…

Stephanie, what fraction of college professors and instructors are African American?

By Isis the Scientist (not verified) on 08 Jan 2011 #permalink

There were attempts to censor "The Merchant of Venice" because of antisemitic content.
My thoughts are that substituting a euphemism for nigger blunts the point of Huckleberry Finn.
When Arabs want to use a derogatory term for black Africans they use the word "abd" or slave. Presumably a black east african person would be greatly offended by the corrected version.
Although I am generally against censorship, I believe the "Shaft" movies should be edited replacing honkey and cracker with person of european descent or caucasian.

Isis, a large enough percentage (i.e., they exist) that going from that statement to "He has not edited the book in response to the pain the word causes African Americans. He has done it because it makes him feel uncomfortable everytime it reads it." requires an assumption on your part that you should probably back up. Then, of course, there's the required assumption that non-African American professors aren't speaking for the concerns of their African American students.

These concerns exist, even among those who teach the book willingly, as is. What makes it cool for you to elide those concerns when you're looking at that statement? Disagree with them, sure. Acknowledge that there are also pressures to whitewash bound up in exactly the same statement, definitely. But don't cut them out yourself and then blame somebody else for doing it.

Isis, I basically agree with you, but there's more. The people who were telling me that they felt uncomfortable were actual people that i know and they were not 50+ while males, but black females and males ranging from 28 to 50-something, and it is specifically the pain caused to African Americans (those specific individuals) to which I refer. I was not thinking of the editor of the book, but that is an interesting point, and thanks for bringing that to the table.

Physioprof: Yes, we all understand that, it is a premise of the current discussion and the reason no one is saying that the original should not be taught to student audiences who are ready for it by qualified teachers.

I'd like to mention again that while we can and should (probably) all worship and fetishize the words of the artist as written in stone, it is intellectually less than straight forward to ignore the fact that those words ... the ones if the first edition of the works to which we refer ... are not the artists unaltered prose. I understand that especially with Twain (and this varies across decades and authors) these are the words the editors settled on, a modified version of the "original" or the earlier text modified by the author under editorial instructions (and we're not talking about dotted I's and crossed T's.)

... still hoping someone who's finished vol. one of the autobiography to chime in with some insight from that angle...

... still hoping someone who's finished vol. one of the autobiography to chime in with some insight from that angle...

Well, I bought it and it's sitting on my table.

Dr. Isis, I don't know about the 51 year old white editor, but I am both offended (as a person of color) by the word, and understanding of the value of the text. What I do see is a lot of white people spending more effort on defending the word "nigger" than they ever spent on defending any actual niggers. I think Dr. Laden has proposed a usable solution to the dilemma. And I use the word dilemma, oddly, correctly.

By Elizabeth (not verified) on 08 Jan 2011 #permalink

This crap about which fucking words we can use is all about a new secular religious nonsense promoted by sociology, psychology, psychiatry, and education in all its fascist forms! It's Puritanical crap! Kids ought to be taught that language is free, open, and fun - words are not things. They don't have cooties! You can't catch STDs from the word sex or fuck! You can't catch racism from reading Huckleberry Finn!

If a modern version is edited to replace the word "nigger" for a certain audience, that certainly does not necessitate all prior versions be burned or otherwise destroyed. If it opens the book to people who would otherwise not read it because they don't want to read the word, then I am okay with this. Perhaps they will return to the original version at a different time.

However, I am not about to tell a black American that they can just get fucked if they don't know how to learn the lesson the way that Twain wrote it.

This was written in the 19th century. Words change. Meanings change. It is not sacrilegious to adapt literature from one century to the next, to "translate" it, if you will, anymore than it is to translate from French to English.

I am sure that I would enjoy "Beowulf" if I were given a more modern translation of it.

By Mike Haubrich (not verified) on 08 Jan 2011 #permalink

Mike, that probably was a modern translation since the original story was in spoken old Norse or something. With hand gestures.

Gina, thanks for your comment. Perfect. Are you from this crowd by any chance?

Stupid shit gina Rex said

It's quite appropriate that you mentioned all of that considering all of the things you are opposing are unrelated to this blog post.

No one said you could catch racism from reading (not that you'd know anything about reading first hand) but the fact that the word "nigger" is thrown around left and right in a book frequently given to children should give a rational person at least a moment of pause. Your spasm of stupid tells us that you are probably not worth paying much attention to.

What's fascistic about questioning introducing children (who are frequently young) to a literary world full of hate and inhuman treatment?


By Drivebyposter (not verified) on 08 Jan 2011 #permalink

So, they're still teaching Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, which is extremely offensive to Jews, in the 9th grade. Even the teachers who try to understand how horrible a tragedy it is, don't really understand. After all, it IS Shakespeare!

I don't think we can simply get rid of all the offensive material that is out there, and I do think it is better to discuss it and teach the reality of history, than to sweep it under the carpet. Most American Christians haven't a clue as to how murderous their devoutly Christian ancestors were to Jews in Europe, let alone how indefensible slavery was. Let's at least bring REAL history out in the open.

By Natalie Sera (not verified) on 08 Jan 2011 #permalink

Hmmmm...I'm finding it quite difficult to take posts seriously anymore (not exclusively on this blog or scienceblogs.) Probably because I attended schools where English literature was just that - writing that had influenced who we are as Americans. It wasn't censored for "correctness" other than that it had stood the test of time: beauty was a big part of that test - writing was important as an art FIRST. Then came cultural and historical significance. Politics? Nowhere to be found. My childhood education was dominated by humanist ideas. Politics was a dirty activity, and still is, whichever side of the hog trough one feeds from.

Hey, Mike H - A really good version of the Beowulf story is Michael Crichton's book Eaters Of The Dead (aka the 13th Warrior) Excellent book.

That book was originally Crichton's Senior Thesis for William Howell at Harvard (where he got his anthro undergrad). Later, he turned it into a book (with a different name, IIRC, though I can't remember that name). Then, after he became more famous he did some rewrite and republished it as Eaters, and that was probably linked to it being made into a film (not a terrible film).

It isn't really (or at least wasn't originally) the Beowulf story exactly, though there is overlap. It implies Beowulf, but is based on a true story of an Arab ambassador from the Ottoman Empire to Hungry (large parts of the story are based directly on his diary) combined with the standing hypotheses at the time of different "hominids" living in Europe in the Paleolithic, with the twist (added by Crichton) that there would be survivors of that earlier age much more recently. But in the movie the story got all mucked up. (Between the two, obvoiusly, read the book.) Remember, Beowulf was originally constructed by people who did not have theories of hominids.

It seems to me to discuss whether it's ever "okay" to edit a classic is leaving half the question in this case unasked. Professor Gibben makes very clear that he produced this version not because the word offended him, but because the word was being used as a reason for banning or not teaching the book. Whether the repetition of the word 200+ times is a valid reason for excluding the work may be a valid debate, but it's different from this one.

The whole question is: "Is producing an edited version of a classic preferable to omitting it from some curriculum entirely?" The answer to me is as obvious as saying that teaching a translation of "Anna Karenina" is preferable to telling non-Russian speakers they're out of luck.

By R.C. Hughes (not verified) on 09 Jan 2011 #permalink

I've gotta say, Greg, you've changed my opinion on this,not that it was too strongly held before.

Here's something odd I've noticed. Some are arguing that this was simply the way people talked back then, that word meanings change, and that we should explain the original meaning of the word. Others are saying the word was specifically used for its effect and shouldn't be changed.

The first argument rather neatly scuttles the second. In the setting of the book, nigger meant slave. A particular type of slave perhaps, but that's it. It wasn't until after abolition that it became a way to remind people of their past and of the way that the speaker, presumably, felt things ought still to be. And that phenomenon was really only just budding, and probably largely ignored when Twain wrote the book.

While there's certainly plenty of discussion to be had about the n-word, I think this book works just fine even with the edits.

I hope I haven't rehashed something that's already been said in one of the comments I skimmed.