Never the Twain Shall Meet

Shame on you, Gribben

Yesterday, an NPR blog post alerted me to a new edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that is being released with altered text to render it more palatable to today’s readers, replacing “nigger” and “Injun” with “slave.”  According to Publisher’s Weekly, Professor Alan Gribben is the instigator of this makeover, purportedly in an effort to get the modern classic off banned lists and back into classrooms.  A noble objective to be sure, but at what cost?

Why must we put our new words in Huck’s mouth and pretty-up the past for today’s school children?  Shouldn’t such a book be prefaced by a lesson on historical context and modern sensibilities?  Who knows, a discussion might even take place! Publisher’s Weekly quotes Twain scholar Thomas Wortham’s disapproval the new edition, and I believe he makes an excellent point:

“a book like Professor Gribben has imagined doesn’t challenge children [and their teachers] to ask, ‘Why would a child like Huck use such reprehensible language?’ “

Though my favorite quote is R.L. Stine’s response, “How idiotic to change a classic of American literature for a word usage that can be explained to young readers. Simply moronic.”  I have to agree with him there.

It seems like such an amazing opportunity to teach, yet it is teachers, by and large, who are afraid to introduce Huck Finn to their classrooms and that is a shame.  I do not like the idea of shying away from history because something in it is unpleasant.  How will we learn from the past if we edit out the glitches contemporary society doesn’t like?  Sure, some will say that it’s only two words but if that’s where it starts, where will it stop?  We do a great disservice to Twain as an author and to children’s capacity to learn.  They have a wonderful ability contemplate serious matters, you know.  And what better way to allow them to do so then through a great adventure story?

The new Huck Finn will be paired with Tom Saywer in a single edition by NewSouth Press.

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One thought on “Never the Twain Shall Meet

  1. I was appalled when I read your entry on the “new and improved” Huckleberry Finn. I can’t understand the rationale behind revising another author’s work and then publishing it still under that author’s name. This is revisionist history run amuck. If teachers do not want to teach Twain’s book, then they can continue to teach something else. Students who are interested will find the book themselves. As I recall my long-ago school days, I was not assigned to read Huck until an American Lit class in college. I had read it on my own earlier and don’t remember being scarred or tempted to use inappropriate terms just because I had come across them in a book.

    Last night’s NBC Nightly News included this new edition as a story. It’s not the norm for them to have anything remotely “literary” as an item. They had speakers both pro and con, but definitely came down on the con side.

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