The new, redacted version of Huckleberry Finn (replacing all instances of the n-word with “slave”) is still a major topic of discussion, which is impressive enough, and more so as this hasn’t exactly been a slow news week, with the Arizona shooting. Clearly, this event has brought out a lot of passion and opinions. Much has been said about honoring Mark Twain’s intended language, about the nature of reality in the period that Twain wanted to depict in all of its ugliness, and about revisionist history (and censorship) as narcissistic navel-gazing. All of that’s true, so I won’t labor the points here, but I think I have two good ideas to add to the discussion.
1) There’s already a high school in a predominantly black part of my town where Huck Finn has been under a de facto ban for years, as the staff is worried that its use of the n-word will inflame the community. I hope the community’s maturity would surprise them, but their worry exists with good reason for, as our attorney general has noted, when it comes to race, we are a nation of cowards. We’re afraid to discuss race for fear of being offensive. If a group of white people is talking about race, and a black person is present, the mood changes, and everyone tiptoes on egg shells. Whatever your race, you know this is true. This isn’t because we’re all secretly hiding some bias, but because we’ve been trained to see racism everywhere, and we’re paranoid about our peers being suspicious. Isn’t this sad?
Censoring the n-word in Huck Finn will only make such problems worse, because it implies that there’s something wrong with the text, and if there’s something wrong with the text, it must be racism. One of the problems with our society is its growing inability to see shades of gray, and this censorship will only reinforce the tendency to say that if something is frank and realistic about race, it must be racist. The irony of this tragedy is that in Huck Finn (which is about racism, but not racist itself), the poor, oppressed black man is the ultimate hero (see below). In a setting that Twain filled with white idiots, Jim is one of literature’s earliest black heroes.
2) Remember the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears? Of course you do: Goldilocks goes exploring and finds a cottage in the woods. She walks on in and, finding the place vacant, helps herself to their porridge and beds. She falls asleep until the three bears come home and find her, whereupon she runs off. The end.
Ever realize just how pointless that story is? That’s because that isn’t the story–like so many of our old fairy tales, our storybook version has been edited to protect us. In the original, the bears come home and eat Goldilocks. This ending carried a clear moral to it: straying too far from the established path into a wilderness, by yourself, is dangerous (also, breaking and entering is bad). The edited ending not only “protects” us from violence, it renders the whole story meaningless.
So also with a censored Huck Finn. Consider the two important characters, Huck and Jim. I hate to say it, but the truth is, without the n-word, each of their stories is just as weak as Goldilocks running off at the end.
This is a coming-of-age novel, where an immature Huck becomes more sensitive to others and independent. Near the beginning of their journey down the river, Huck plays a prank on Jim that gets Jim bitten by a snake and in agony for days. Does Huck feel remorse? Nope. Why? Because Jim is “just a n—–.” Later, after Jim has helped Huck along the way and shames Huck after another cruel prank, Huck feels the qualms of conscience, and “humbles” himself enough to apologize. Not great, but it’s progress. Finally, in the novel’s most dramatic scene, Huck prays for strength to turn in the runaway slave but, finding that God doesn’t care to help him through that exercise, decides to reject society’s values entirely and side with Jim from then on. It’s a huge decision made at great personal risk. Huck has become a young man.
But Jim’s the hero. While Twain has a merry old time making his sprawling cast into a rogues’ gallery of all mankind’s vice and stupidity, it’s Jim, illiterate and superstitious as he is, who’s the novel’s moral compass, Obi-wan to Huck’s rough, untrained young apprentice. (As a recent New York Times editorial noted, Jim is the novel’s “most noble character.”) It’s Jim who, almost alone in this ridiculously awful world, feels genuine pain at his moral failures, and sacrifices himself for others (for example, standing watch on the raft all night, even taking Huck’s shift on top of his own, so the boy can sleep). See, Huck’s own father was an abusive, neglectful drunk. Huck can only successfully become a young man in this story because of the care and guidance of Jim, the surrogate who stands in as the good father Huck never had.
Imagine that. Could Twain have made his point about the injustice of racism any more beautifully?
Now, do those lessons stand nearly as strongly if Jim is called a slave instead of a n—–? No. Twain chose the word in usage at the time of the setting for a reason–it forces us to see just how far Huck had to grow in order to see Jim as a “real” person, worthy of respect, and it shows us just how hostile the environment was in which Jim had to thrive as a hero. Taking away the offensive obscenity dulls the impact of Huck’s growth and Jim’s dignity. With lessened adversity, their victory is likewise diminished.
The text of Huck Finn is in the public domain, and this publisher is free to print a censored version. Hopefully we remember that we’re likewise free to ignore it.