It was a well-meaning and sensitive Mark Twain scholar Alan Gribben, working with NewSouth Books, who prepared slightly sanitized versions of Mark Twain’s touchstone novels, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer substituting the word “slave” for the word “nigger” (or, the “N-word” for those so inclined). Supporting his actions, Gribben told the Associated Press, “It’s such a shame that one word should be a barrier between a marvelous reading experience and a lot of readers.” The editing job was not too hard, NewSouth simply changed the 219 instances of the offensive word to something more acceptable.
In a “60 Minutes” interview, Randall Williams, co-owner and editor of NewSouth Books, clarified the position, responding to the presence of the pejorative, “If you can have the discussion and you’re comfortable havin’ the discussion, have it. Have it with it in there. But if you’re not comfortable with that, then here’s an alternative for you to use. And I would argue to you that it’s still powerful.” While that is powerful and compelling reasoning, it nevertheless retains a certain element of historic revision.
Mark Twain was hardly silent on the matter, writing in 1888, “the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter,” later extrapolating the difference as, “the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” It is both impossible and unfair to hold Mark Twain’s masterpieces responsible for an offense, by today’s standards, 125 years after the fact. No service is done in any quarter by editing an established text to make it more “palatable” or “acceptable” to a contemporary audience.
Is “nigger” a bad word? Absolutely. Odious, unacceptable, vile, vain, profane all describe the word and its connotations. I do not permit it said by my family and confront friends and acquaintances when they say it. Its use by both blacks and whites is unnecessary. I see this as a matter of simple respect and courtesy. Today, at the beginning of the second decade of the 21st Century, the word “nigger” has no place in social discourse (as its use is patently antisocial). Having said that, I also believe that altering antique texts to conform to modern qualms is as odious, unacceptable, vile, vain, and profane as the word itself. Such smacks of the famous picture of Josef Stalin and water commissar Nikolai Yerzof. After Yerzof had fallen from Stalin’s favor, he was arrested and shot and all photographs of Yerzof and Stalin were cleansed of Yerzof’s image, leaving both an inaccurate version of history and the sinister message that no one is safe.
NewSouth’s efforts to “improve” the readability of Twain’s books is also a matter of Noah closing the Arc door after, not only the cow, but every other animal, got out. Hip Hop culture and Rap Music exposes orders of magnitude more individuals to the word “nigger” than Twain’s books ever have or will. So, while Alan Gribben’s wrings his hands about the word being a barrier to “a marvelous reading experience,” he inevitably throws the baby out with the bathwater, cheapening American Literature in the bargain. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer are history. A bad history in some elements, but history just the same. Removing one word from a book will not change that, opening the door to even less acceptable historic revision.