Huckleberry Finn, Racism and The Social Order

Posted by on February 17th, 2011 at 1:00 PM

“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” — Ernest Hemingway

Efforts to sanitize classic literature have a long history, Michiko Kakutani points out in the New York Times — “everything from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men are often victims of censorship or suppression because they have the word nigger in them.

“There have even been purified versions of the Bible — all that sex and violence!” And then in the 1980s, Kakutani remembers, authors like Joseph Conrad and Herman Melville were threatened with exile from the classroom because their works projected “colonialist attitudes” or didn’t feature enough women.

So when Alan Gribben, a professor of English at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., edited a new edition of Huckleberry Finn in which he substituted the word slave for nigger, he was joining a long, albeit benighted, parade of literary do-gooders who seek to decontaminate our reading matter as well as our language.

Gribben’s reason for “editing” Twain is that he is afraid the book is falling off too many reading lists because of Twain’s use of the verboten word. And Gribben provoked a predictable reaction among editorial cartoonists, some of which we see here.

Click through to view larger image.

Starting clockwise at the upper right, John Cole captures the spirit of Twain’s novel with a direct but somewhat “edited” quotation from the original, turning the tables on Gribben; and then Jeff Danziger carries on in the spirit of the PC censor, destroying the book’s authenticity by purging its vernacular language. (Danziger can’t resist broadening the cartoon’s scope: under the name of the riverboat is inscribed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” playing off “queen,” of course.)

Jimmy Margulies deploys a recent coinage in popular culture to make his point, a point made loudly by many lovers and students of literature. Said Kakutani: “Authors’ original texts should be sacrosanct intellectual property, whether a book is a classic or not. Tampering with a writer’s words underscores both editors’ extraordinary hubris and a cavalier attitude embraced by more and more people in this day of mash-ups, sampling and digital books — the attitude that all texts are fungible, that readers are entitled to alter was they please, that the very idea of authorship is old-fashioned.”

The Hartford Courant’s Bob Englehart, whose smiley face caricatures so beautifully the Politically Correct and its self-satisfied delusions, had more to say in straight prose at his blog:

My daughter asked me on Facebook what I thought about the censoring of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I hadn’t heard of the clamor at that point and responded in general about book banning and how it’s good for business. ‘Banned in Boston’ was a great advertising campaign to sell any book when the Watch and Ward Society ran things in Beantown. Makes me shiver to think of it. Frankly, I think Alan Gribben’s project to change Twain’s language will result in more sales for the original.

There was a popular cartoon panel called There Oughta Be A Law back in the last century that highlighted some of the funnier human absurdities and the cartoonist suggested new laws to correct things. Well, I’ve got one. There oughta be a law that says literary text can’t be altered without the author’s written consent and since this author’s been dead for 100 years now, it ain’t going to happen. My God, if they’re going to change something from the literary past, they should change anything written by William Shakespeare and put it into English.

In the interest of honesty and truth in labeling, the new book should be called Alan Gribben’s Attempt To Have the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Taught In Backward School Systems.

Englehart’s outburst was applauded by several engaged bystanders who encountered the blog and commented:

From Just Another Vet: “Literature reflects the truth of the times it was written in. To alter it is to create a lie. To lie, saying that the word nigger never existed, is to bury your head in the sand and forget the past. And as the old saying goes, ‘Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.’”

From Jeff Reed: I’ve never been a big fan of the slippery slope argument, but I think it applies here. As absurd as this “modification” is, I think we’re missing the bigger picture. If we’re going to erase/modify offensive language in books, why don’t we erase/modify offensive times in history? I find it offensive that America ever partook in slavery to begin with; should we tell our children that it never happened? Do we really want to get in the same boat with the people who are trying to convince us the holocaust never happened?

From Paul: My anecdotal contribution: walked past a bookstore with a window display featuring a dozen or so “banned” books. Where’s Waldo was there. I just had to ask. The book included a beach scene, and out of the hundreds of people depicted, the self-righteous, puritanical would-be censors zeroed right in on the young lady sunbathing (on her stomach), with her bikini top untied in back. The only skin exposed was — [shiver] — her back. I didn’t laugh, and neither did the bookstore owner; I felt more anger than anything else.

And then we have Ruben Bolling, who devotes an entire installment of his Tom the Dancing Bug to an exploration of how all of Huckleberry Finn could be modernized to suit 21st century sensibilities. (

However well-intentioned Gribben’s effort, slave is not a suitable substitute for nigger. Slave is an economic term: it denotes property. Nigger is a racial term, often an epithet but in the ante-bellum South of Huck Finn’s time, it denoted more the ignorance of the person who used it than the social status of the person being denominated. To remove this word from Twain’s masterwork is to undermine the satire, the social criticism at the heart of the book.

Huckleberry Finn was about phonies long before either J.D. Salinger or Holden Caulfield ever thought of it. Generally speaking, the novel attacks the dangerous artificiality of so-called respectable society by pitting against it the fundamental goodness of unsocialized human nature — Huck Finn vs. Miss Watson, whose essential traits appear again in caricature as the phony Duke and King, the con men Huck and Jim encounter as their raft drifts south on the Mississippi. Critic Leo Marx writes: “Miss Watson is the enemy. … She pronounces the polite lies of civilization that suffocate Huck’s spirit.” Jim is her property, and Huck’s moral dilemma is that he knows Jim is a runaway slave and that it is his obligation in the social order for which Miss Watson stands to see that Jim is returned to his owner. If Huck doesn’t, he is violating the moral sense of the social order, and by so doing, he believes (having been thoroughly conditioned by “society”) that he’s committing a sin punishable by damnation. Finally, having wrestled with this socially imposed imperative, Huck writes a letter to Miss Watson, telling her where Jim is. But then, after remembering fondly all the things he and Jim have done together, he tears up the letter, saying: “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.”

t is a central moment in the novel. Huck’s fundamentally sound moral sense wins out over the phony morality of respectable society. The word nigger is not just an instance of Twain’s characterization of Huck through the use of the vernacular speech of the day: nigger is the verbal symbol of the internal struggle Huck’s moral dilemma precipitates. It is the socially approved term for negro slaves, and by using it, Huck shows that he aspires to a place in that social order. His use of the word shows that he has internalized that aspiration; it is deeply embedded in him. So when Huck decides he’ll go to hell rather than betray the man who has become his companion and friend, he betrays instead his own socially-sanctioned aspiration, his place in society. Without the word nigger, we cannot realize how deeply ingrained in Huck are the morally bankrupt precepts of the society in which he grew up, and his sacrifice of a place in that phony heaven for a place in hell loses its impact.

The novel’s thematic meaning remains intact even without the word nigger. At the end of the book, Huck chooses to “light out for the Territory [the West],” rejecting Aunt Sally’s attempt to adopt him and civilize him. “I can’t stand it,” he says, “— I been there before.” But without the word nigger, the bitter irony of Huck’s concluding remark is robbed of much of its emotional power.

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One Response to “Huckleberry Finn, Racism and The Social Order”

  1. patford says:

    Related blog post of interest: