Censorship of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter." [Mark Twain] When his social satire was first published,...

Censorship of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

"The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter." [Mark Twain]

When his social satire was first published, reviewers and parents were concerned that it would corrupt young children with its depictions of a hero who lies, steals, and uses coarse language.  In recent times, this novel has met with sharp criticism because of its portrayal of the runaway slave Jim and the use of the n---- word. On the NBC Nightly News of January 5, 2011, Brian Williams reported that Twain's book will have this racially offensive word expunged from its text.

What issues/dilemmas does this censorship pose both for Twain's novel and for other works of literature? 

Asked on by mwestwood

12 Answers | Add Yours

booboosmoosh's profile pic

booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

Wow!

I love the novel of Huck Finn because of all the positive messages it had for the students when I taught 11th grade. I did not care for the n--- word, nor would I read it aloud. There is no way I can understand what it means to be black and hear that word thrown at me, but I do know that it feels full of hate.

As far as removing it from the novel, part of me struggles with this. Free speech comes to mind. Freedom of thought. Presenting the plight of a black man in the South racing for freedom is so much more powerful in light of the hate and ignorance of the time, and Huck's heroism in seeing Jim as a man first, and as a black man second, and wanting to protect him from a hateful world are truly valuable themes in the book.

And I agree with posting #10 that in context, it mean a great deal to address racism, diversity, etc. It is what we do when we read To Kill a Mockingbird, which also has the n--- word. Will that book be on "the" list? Atticus even addresses it, telling Scout not to use the word because it is "common." This provides the "teachable moment," but only if it's in the book.

Where will it start, and where will it end? Who will decide. Isn't this a form of censorship? We won't burn the book but will remove what we don't like. OK. It's an awful word. I can live without it in the book. But once someone or some group starts policing books, where will it end and how do we choose the people that will have this kind of control?

Is there going to be an abridged version and an unabridged version, or is it out? I would expect this decision may not be as final as some folks might believe it to be (those "in charge...").

litteacher8's profile pic

litteacher8 | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

Whenever the censorship of this book comes up, I remind students of the Explanatory at the beginning of the book.  Twain knew that this book was going to be controversial.  It always has been, although the reasons are different now.  Most of the problem comes from people not understanding why Twain wrote the way he did.  He was describing things as they were, and doing so was very important to him.

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ahampton36 | College Teacher | (Level 1) Adjunct Educator

Posted on

When teaching Twain or Faulkner, it is necessary to also teach diversity, tolerance and compassion for others, which does not always happen. So, works like Huckleberry Finn are heralded as great American literary works that are simply reflecting the realism of the times, despite the fact that they contain culturally insensitive depictions of disenfranchised people and repressive language.

How do you think African and Native American students feel when reading these texts? Don’t we have a responsibility to frame these texts within a context of inclusion for them and other minorities who most certainly are offended by the use of racially derogatory language, regardless of the context in which it is used?

To some, it might appear that deleting the N word from the Twain text is akin to eliminating discussions of slavery from classroom textbooks – out of sight, out of mind. If schools continue to force students to read the original versions of the texts, then I think in all fairness such lectures should also include realistic discussions of racism, diversity, cultural exclusion and inclusivity. In essence, reading and teaching Twain and similar texts should be used to promote social justice. Without this context, it will seem as if educators and aficionados of the text are patronizing racist rhetoric couched in American literature, appearing as American ideals.

brettd's profile pic

brettd | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

Really oppose the censoring of any literature.  Now that someone has decided to get rid of the N word from Huck Finn, I'm sure a kid in a public school will never hear that word in his lifetime, right?  As Americans, we tend to do that a lot - the problem doesn't exist if we just don't talk about it.  If we don't teach inclusive sex ed, kids won't be sexually active, either, right?  Kids are exposed to everything in the world, and we can't hide it from them.  Why not put it in an educational context at least, where what's offensive and what's not can be part of a class discussion, a teachable moment, with a mentor who knows what they're talking about.  I want my students to know about racism in history and today.  I want them to know how and why some words carry such weight.  I want them to choose not to use these words, rather than simply be shielded from them.

auntlori's profile pic

Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

Editing out what one person or one group may find offensive is a risky proposition in nearly every circumstance. Why is it okay to read about a drunken, abusive, neglectful father? Surely no one approves of such behavior. This is a ridiculous endeavor and it dilutes (whitewashes, if you will) both literature and history. Take this novel out of the junior high classrooms and the issues diminish.

mshurn's profile pic

Susan Hurn | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

This news about revising Twain's novel disturbs me a lot, for different reasons, most of them cited here already. Changing the language changes the essential social context of the novel and that dilutes Twain's theme. To understand the degree of Huck's moral courage when he embraces Jim because he has come to understand Jim's decency and humanity, it is absolutely necessary to understand Huck's hateful, racist society. That's the point. Huck chooses within the prevailing belief system of his society to literally go to hell and suffer its torment rather than betray Jim. I can think of no stronger condemnation of racism in literature, and to edit Twain shows ignorance of his work and its significance.

I've come to believe in the last few years that some novels are introduced too early with students, before they are mature enough to really understand their language, historical context, and literary themes. This is one of them.

lmetcalf's profile pic

lmetcalf | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

Posted on

I have to share what happened in class today!  Two or three of my students were discussing this very topic and one of the students was CONVINCED that it was something done by The Onion (he is a huge fan of the publication.)  When I jumped in an explained that no, in fact, this was a real suggestion, he couldn't believe it.  All of the students who were talking agreed that making this change in language would potentially change the perception of the author's intention in the work.  I was impressed!

martinjmurphy's profile pic

martinjmurphy | Middle School Teacher | (Level 1) Associate Educator

Posted on

I think that the novel should not be changed. Mark Twain wrote those words at a certain time with certain meanings.  They should not be changed.  As a matter of fact, I think reading the original should be required.  I think it could lead to excellent classroom discussions concerning the historical background of the novel and the use of those words in the past and today.

amy-lepore's profile pic

amy-lepore | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

I'm glad you added this...I intended to when I saw the blurb on the news this morning.  How ludicrous is this!  The book is an example of classic literature true to the region and the thinking of the time period.  Get past the "N" word, and you discover that the entire message of the book is that Jim is a person with feelings, goals, dreams, and plans for the future for him and his family.  Jim is the most trustworthy and loyal character in the book, and certainly more loveable and "human" than many of the characters in the book.  The idea of censorship is introduced by ignorant masses who have not or will not read the book before judging it. 

Having said that, might I add that most of the popular music that our impressionable children listen to today is rife with the "N" word and worse.  What are we trying to prove by altering a classic piece of literature other than the satisfaction that the minority can beat down the majority...again.

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larrygates | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

It is my understanding that at least one school district has placed a substantial order for copies of the book in which the "N" word is replaced with "slave," and "Injun Joe" becomes "Indian Joe."  I sympathize with those who find the language of the book offensive; and if Twain were writing today, it is problematic as to whether he would have used it. Having said all that, the book was a reflection of the time frame in which it was written; when we begin revising it for political correctness' sake, we are more concerned with present day sensitivities than with a true reflection of the time period when the book was written. This type of revisionism to me is diluting history to make it more palatable. I require my students to read Uncle Tom's Cabin, which most scholars will agree was a major element in the outbreak of the Civil War. Harriet Beecher Stowe used the "N" word with abandon. If it were similarly diluted, the entire tenor of the book would be modified. Once we start modifying original--and historical--literature for sensitivity's sake, we are moving down a very slippery slope. To me, it is far more important that students understand the attitudes and opinions of the time in which these works were written than that they be protected from the harsh realities that the works present.

pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

Although I think that it is pretty dumb of them to do this, I do not really think it is going to make a big difference.

First of all, it is not as if the original of the novel will disappear.  This is just one person's project, not some oppressive government program to censor the book.  We do not know if this version of the book will sell and we do know that the original will remain available.

More substantively, does the expurgation of this word really change the meaning of the book?  When Twain wrote, the word did not carry the same meaning (at least not to non-blacks) as it does today.  I doubt white people were reading the book and flinching every time they saw the word.  So deleting the word does not, in my mind, take away from Twain's message because Twain was not trying to have his characters be offensive in that way every time they said the word.

So I'm not worried.  The original will be available.  Twain's main message will not be lost in either version.

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alliecryals | Student, Undergraduate | eNotes Newbie

Posted on

I am very against using the word that the publishers want to change; however, I believe it should be left the way Mark Twain wrote it. If he wanted it to be a different word, then he would have written something else. As long as teachers warn students that the word appears in the novel and that it was a common word during the time period, everyone should be ok.

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