Bowdlerizing Twain

I received a call from Millie Davis at NCTE this week asking me if I wanted to be interviewed about the new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in which editor Alan  Gribben, a Twain scholar at Auburn University, has replaced the word “nigger” with slave.  I couldn’t make the interview, but I would like to comment. 

I understand Gribben’s discomfort with teaching the novel.  Twain’s repeated use of this most toxic of racial slurs, not to mention some of his description of Jim and other enslaved people, makes me uncomfortable, too.  But we’re supposed to feel uncomfortable when we read the novel, and I think it’s best to confront the offensive language from the beginning.  Here’s a passage from Building the English Classroom on this very issue:

… I teach Huckleberry Finn as a text about race in America.  I welcome the chance to introduce the controversies that surround this novel and to let students come to their own conclusions about Twain’s portrayal of Jim and whether the book has a racist or anti-racist agenda.  But I don’t look forward to preparing students to encounter the word “nigger” dozens of times.  Explanations about dialects, historical biases, and other reasons Twain might have used it so often don’t negate the fact that seeing and hearing this word makes most people, including me, squirm.  Ignoring its presence in the novel isn’t an option, though I admit I used to try to gloss over it quickly and move on to easier topics.  Now I bring it up as a topic for discussion even before I hand out the books.  After informing students that this epithet appears frequently in the novel’s dialogue and narration, I ask them to freewrite anything they want to say about it—feelings, questions, personal experiences.  Then I begin a discussion by sharing some of my own writing about the word, including how uncomfortable I felt at large family gatherings when older relatives would use it.  I invite students to enter the conversation when they feel ready but make it clear that they don’t have to share what they have written.  What follows is a fruitful, if discomfiting, discussion.  Painful memories sometimes come out.  Questions about who can use the N-word and under what circumstances often arise.  African-American students may debate with each other about its appropriateness in popular culture and intra-community conversation, and white students get an education about how oppressed peoples can appropriate the language of the oppressor.  Meanwhile, I’m on the lookout for anyone who looks really troubled so I can follow up.  I end the session by asking the class to reach an agreement about how we will handle the word when it comes up in our analysis of the novel.  (194-195)

Students appreciate – and they certainly need – opportunities to wrestle with controversial issues and engage in critical thinking about complex problems such as racism.  Protecting students (and ourselves) from painful realities may seem the most judicious course at times, but it’s not good teaching.

By the way, this new version of Huckleberry Finn is only the most recent and most blatant of rewriting literature to make it more palatable.  I have found numerous examples of bowdlerizing in anthologies (and I’m sure there are many more that I haven’t found).  One is in the Harcourt Brace Adventures in English Literature, which silently deletes “liver of blaspheming Jew” from the weird sisters’ list of ingredients (but leaves “Nose of Turk and Tartar’s lips” intact).  This omission has prompted some good discussions in my classroom – not only about anti-Semitism in Shakespeare’s era but also about “acceptable” biases (against Turks and Tartars, for example) and about censorship.  I wish that publishers put more effort into helping teachers have those discussions and less into redacting texts to avoid them.