Should an editor change a classic novel to keep from offending modern readers?

A Mark Twain scholar plans to release a new edition of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” without the N word. Today’s Question: Should an editor change a classic novel to keep from offending modern readers?

  • Ilene Alexander

    Were the “change” to be in preface/introduction to help contemporary readers learn about race, racism, class, classism across time in the US and to extend that contextual understanding to language, culture, policy and personal/political interactions today, that would be a wonderful editorial addition. To change the text? Every bit of my brain that’s been focused on doing social justice work and college teaching screams “NO!”

  • Tim

    No. We lose some of the context of the time period when the work was written. the original language may be offensive today but for historical accuracy and insight into the thinking, attitudes and social norms of past eras the works should remain as unchanged as possible.

  • hiram

    It’s the Huck Finn issue. And another question should be, should schools assign these revised texts. And maybe the question that prompts is why are we assigning Huck Finn to any given group of 21st century students? To learn reading skills? For the historical insights it provides?

    There are a couple of really racist lines in “The Great Gatsby”, lines Fitzgerald wouldn’t have written in the 21st century, and lines no editor or publishing house would have put into print. I do wonder if a 21st century editor, doing the job Fitzgerald’s editor failed to to do, wouldn’t have on the whole, helped the book.

  • Ellen

    NO WAY!!!!!

  • MikeK

    If the editor changes one word and then releases it that editor should be charged with plagiarism. If Mark Twain were alive today he’d write it the same way. He’d use more of colorful words we have developed over the years since that story was written just to show us how we really act and talk to each other, rub our noses in it.

    Not one word of any book should be changed unless the author of the book/work has approved the change(s), ever!

    It’s just another sign of the “dumb-ing” of America.

  • Barb

    No No No To pretend that something doesn’t exist doesn’t make it non existent.Jim is a great character Don’t diminish him.

  • Dennis Johnson

    Who decided that using the word nigger was offensive. I am 64 so the word has been in my vocabulary for 60 years. It describes dark skinned people descended from slaves and ridiculed in american society.

  • Steve the Cynic

    Mark Twain was an adamant abolitionist whose writings (including Huckleberry Finn) did much to expose the evils of racial prejudice. The fact that we consider the N-word intolerably offensive today is in part due to the influence of Twain’s writings. Especially if it’s assigned reading in HS literature classes, it should be as Twain wrote it, if only so that students will see how far we’ve come.

  • No.

    As I said on Bob Collins’ blog:

    In my view, the use of the n word in the book should, if anything, be a springboard for teaching rather than something to be feared. How hard would it be to bridge history and sociology and the history of language into the English curriculum by having a discussion of the issue. The students might actually be asked to think, give their opinions and wrestle with the issue.

    Of course, since all that sort of thing isn’t found in our test-mad culture, its pie-in-the-sky dreaming. This is one reason I decided not to continue to pursue a career in Education.

  • Leonard

    Are they nuts?

    Nigger is a word, it exists, is it loaded with evil connotations? Absolutely! But when you begin to change already established works to meet Political Correctness where does it stop?

    Do we change the Bible because the words doesn’t fit with the lexicon of the GLBT community?

    Get a grip people!

  • Carol Picard

    Documenting the evolution of this country’s culture is upheld through the authenticity of literature written yesterday, today and, hopefully, tomorrow! A definite “No” in searching and replacing any words in historical classics.

  • Joe

    Sometimes being offended is a healthy thing. Mark Twain’s whole purpose in writing Huckleberry Finn (and Pudd’n Head Wilson and others) was to highlight the ridiculousness of white America’s attitude about slavery in general and black people in particular. To eliminate the hurtful “N” word would reduce the emotional punch that the story makes. The word was common-place at the time, and seeing how much we’ve grown since then gives me hope. Should we also eliminate the scenes of Jim’s captivity? His mistreatment at his “owner’s” hands? The whole fact that Jim is enslaved and forced to decide between running away and being sold down the river is, to me, considerably more offensive than what he is called. And that’s the point of the book: Slavery, and everything that went with it, was a pretty horrible thing, and yet human kindness triumphed over all the insults in the end. I don’t think editors like the one in the question give kids enough credit for being able to understand what they are reading.

  • Eric

    Literature, of any kind, is art. Pre-publication editorial work is a collaboration between the author and the editor(s). Post-publication (especially when the author is no longer living) editorial work falls in the category of art conservation.

    With the possible exception of correcting actual printing errors in the original (after investigation to determine that the “errors” were not intended by the original author / editors of the text), the only changes that an editor should make to an already published work is to add annotations (footnotes, end notes, or similar) or other external commentary to help contemporary readers understand the text. Even in this case, the form of the annotations should be such that they are clearly not part of the original text. This principle is well established in the art conservation world, where necessary rework is done in a way that is obvious to future conservators and scholars.

  • Britta

    I question the real motive of changing the text. Is it really to keep from offending readers or is it to keep white middle class teachers and Americans from having a vital and meaningful conversation about racism, in an historical context, and in the context of current America?

  • JBlilie

    In a free country, you have no right to not be offended by the speech of others. In fact, in a free country, you are essentially guaranteed to be offended at various times. Grow up! Get over yourself! I’m offended by Rush Limbaugh and Anne Coulter. Guess what? I just don’t read them or listen to them!

    On the question of changing a classic piece of literature: OK, go ahead, but you should never be allowed to publish it under the same title. It should be required to be published as Dr Alan Gribben’s Bowdlerized Version of Huckleberry Finn.

    Are we going to change history books because past events offend people? Please get a grip people!

    Twain was recording the local patois of the time and place in which the story occurs. To remove purportedly offensive terms will make the new version less authentic, hence false.

    In addition, retaining the literature (and history and speeches and newspapers) of the time performs a useful function: It provides the proper context in which to measure our progress in race relations and provides the context for the civil rights movement for blacks in the 20th century. If you try to erase all the offense, future generations will wonder what all the fuss was about.

  • GaryF

    This is a total joke. NO.

    Kids reading this book need to learn the history and context of when this book was written and how it relates today. That is part of the learning experience.

    Another example of the left wanting to re-write history.

    So, this word can only be used by black thug rappers?

  • Judy Benson

    Maybe we should consider putting underwear on Michalangelo’s David or a bra on the sculpture of Diana? Not! It is my opinion that individuals wanting to change a work of art don’t understand it in the first place. Revisionist history is self-serving and shallow.

  • Robin in Minneapolis

    Absolutely not. One of the many values of classic literature is learning about cultural history. The cultural and social characteristics of the author’s time period are reflected in the work, and editing out words that we as a culture find offensive today would tarnish the historical significance of the text.

  • Joe Fizel

    To call someone removing “the n-word” from Twain’s work by the name “scholar” is an inexcusable bastardization of the word scholar.

  • Nicole

    Isn’t this called censorship? First of all this book was written in a time when a black/African American person was called this on a daily basis. This is a period piece and to take out words that were used during that time would not make sense. It is also a great way to see how times have changed. If this were to offend anyone than simple do not read it. What is to stop someone from censoring other works?

  • Sue de Nim

    On the other hand…….

    There are middle-class white kids who say defiantly, “Mark Twain used that word,” as a way of legitimizing their inappropriate use of it, and there are black kids who can’t get past the offensive word to hear the powerful story Mark Twain was trying to tell. The ideal solution would be to have excellent teachers of American literature every high school who could guide thoughtful discussions about these issues and help our kids deal with the matter intelligently. Since we don’t pay teachers well enough to attract our best and brightest into that profession and fail to give due respect to those who do, we don’t have nearly enough of such excellence to go around. If the only other two options are excising the “N” word from Huckleberry Finn or excising Mark Twain from the curriculum, which would you choose?

  • Sarah

    I think it’s a great idea!

    No one is talking about replacing authentic editions with the revised one. But what this version might do is introduce the work to some who would not otherwise read it.

  • Lisa

    Absolutely not. Literature is a reflection of its time and culture. Just because something from that time and culture is objectionable to modern readers is not a reason to change the book, but it can be an opportunity to talk about objectionable things that are still an issue in our current times and culture.

  • JBlilie

    In response to Ms. de Nim:

    You present a false dilemma.

    The offended kids need to be taught the old “sticks and stones” saw. Bowing our necks to the victimhood culture will not help these kids. Being PC in this case is a form of low expectations for these kids.

    If you want to prepare kids for these issues, then the school district can provide a one-paragraph statement covering the issues. This should easily suffice. Tell kids that it’s offensive to use the word to black folk. Tell the black kids that this was how people talked in those days, and yes, it’s offensive and bad as was slavery and all its culural effects. This takes no special skill. If this isn’t enough, then the kids need to speak to a guidance counselor.

    And, by the way, have you ever listened to any “rap” or “hip-hop” music? “Nigger” is used more frequently in these black-dominated music genres than anywhere else in our culture. The white kids don’t need Mark Twain for a permissive example of offensive use of word “nigger.” And they are actually listening to the music, they’re not reading Twain.

  • Sarah

    Oh, and to the people who say, “If you’re offended by Huckleberry Finn, don’t read it”: you have an excellent point. And it’s a point that applies equally to the people who don’t want to see Twain bowdlerized. If you’re offended by the altered edition, don’t read it.

  • Mike nelson

    No!!! No!!! No!!!.

    We need to undersand the contezt and the vernacular at the time the work was written.

    There is no value in sanitizing works of art. Who’d accept a fig leaf on David or blankets added to Reubens models.

  • Travis Anderson

    Maybe we should eliminate all references to slavery in the book as well. I mean, we shouldn’t be reminded of that either. Maybe truancy should get the boot, too!

  • Dara Walter

    I don’t believe we should change literature to eliminate “offensive” terms that reflect the thinking and behavior of a group of people at a particular point in time. Instead, I think we need to teach our children to read with a curious and introspective mind. I am re-reading “Gone With The Wind” which, with its reprehensible ideas and language, nonetheless, reflects accurately the beliefs of Southern society in the mid 19th century. While it was offensive to me at 16 and provoked much thought, reading it now at 50, with language reflecting such bigotry, hatred, entitlement and condescension is deeply thought provoking. It would not have such a powerful effect on me personally were the words “sanitized” to be non-offensive.

  • Sarah S

    No! Aren’t we going to teach our children about racism and other sociocultural issues? Students should be taught about slavery, Jim Crow, etc and understand that this word is extremely hurtful and negative. If we don’t teach them U.S. history, then they’ll hear the N word in gangsta rap culture and not understand its historical significance or the offensive implications it carries.

  • BruceJ

    What’s striking here is the puritanical dogmatism of many who probably consider themselves liberals or progressives. The facts are that many schools avoid assigning the book for fear of controversy and, in some cases, sensitivity or fear of legitimizing use of the N word. As the article linked to by Nick explains, the new edition substitutes the word ‘slave’ — hardly an avoidance of discussion of slavery.

    Do you really think that the word is the essence of the text? In any case, it would certainly be possible to argue that the meaning of the word in use has changed since the original publication. So a modification that makes the text accessible to more people is akin to a new translation of Tolstoy or Flaubert. Or do you only read those texts in the original language.

  • I guess this means Joseph Conrad’s novel, The Nigger of the Narcissus, will never be read by anyone. We can’t erase racism from the past, nor should we. (What’s next? Are Nazis going to avoid using anti-Semitic slurs in literature?). Words have power. We shouldn’t pretend otherwise, but by bowdlerizing Huck Finn we’re doing just that.

  • Bryan

    YES. We need to clean up our past, because it is an embarrassment of how this country was originally founded. We have made numerous changes to the way our country now functions, i.e. civil rights – to the original founding ideas. It’s time to clean up our past and move forward – not back.

  • Margaret

    NO, the content should not be changed. How can a reader get the shock from a work if it has been watered down and sanitized? I remember when I read the book I was upset by the references and it made me see the world in a more critical way.

    We should not be dumbing down our world to a fifth grade level.

  • Michelle

    Absolutely not. It’s preposterous that any self-respecting editor would even consider doing this.

  • Sue de Nim

    JBlilie, you would be correct about that, if everyone were as thoughtful, rational and well-educated as you and I, and if anti-intellectualism were not pervasive in American culture today. Personally, I abhor the idea of revising the classics, but I can see why there is a demand for an edition of Huckleberry Finn without the “N” word, and I would be loath to forbid scholars to meet that demand. Free markets and free speech, you know.

  • Dave

    Of course it should be removed, if and only if every black rap/hip hop star removes if from every one of their songs. Otherwise this is just a case of misguided white liberal guilt.

    I don’t get this whole magical word thing we have going on in this country. The only reason these words have this power is because people decided to take issue with them. As soon as you stop caring bad words would go away. Replacing a word with exact same meaning does not change anything. An adjective is an adjective is an adjective.

  • Rachel

    Editing any form of art is wrong and insulting to the artist. One would not look at a painting from Twain’s era and “touch up” what they deem insulting. The painting is what it is just as Huckleberry Finn is exactly what Twain meant to put down on paper. In fact, eliminating “That Word” from Twain’s work takes away an opportunity to have a discussion with our children and peers that could further educate and enrich our understanding of black culture in America. Eliminating the word rather than educating the reader only adds to its power as a derogatory term in today’s society.

    While studying English Literature at University, one learns that “innappropriate content” does not truly exist. Naked becomes nude, cussing becomes character, and everything is up for discussion. If we cut away all the words and content we don’t like, we lose our history. How can we illustrate our progress if we destroy that which inspired our change?

    Unfortunately, we don’t have the ability to see into the future. If we did, I think we might see the novels of our generation in the hands of “modern” readers who are appalled at our language. But at the suggestion to edit our work, would we not protest wholeheartedly to its destruction? I think we would.

  • Philip

    NO! We allow that to happen in places like the former Soviet Union. Historical revisionism comes to mind and is one of the worst forms of theft a society can experience. Rewriting literature to suit political correctness is the same thing. Absurd!

  • NO,

    A classic novel reflects the social norms and language of the times. For the discerning reader, they can handle and bridge the differences. Novels are (one) part of our collective history and the elements of history should not be changed.

    There are many aspects of today’s novels that would be embarrasing to defend 100 years from now.

    As for the Mark Twain novel, WHO would do the editing, and WHAT makes them any more responsible than someone else. I cringe when I read those words today, but I read it to demonstrate how far we’ve come.

  • Jeff Johnson

    No. This edition of Twain’s work will severely damage American literature and our understanding of our history. We need more discussions of our use of “the N word” rather than fewer.

  • Renee

    Upon hearing this, another literary classic came to mine….. Orwell’s 1984.

  • Tom

    NO, this is an important piece of literary history, should be understood in context of the time.

  • Jane

    Absolutely NOT!

    This political correctness as out of whack as it has ever been!

    No one has a right to edit another’s published writings. Our education system – of students, and through the media – of adults – should encourage conversation, provoke thought, drive discussion. We need to understand historical context, and evolution of ideas. This is just another attempt at revisionist history . . . . “it I blot it out of writings, we don’t have to admit it happened.”

  • Peggy

    “Nein, Nein, Nein, Nein”

    A quote from:

  • Karen

    No! We need to teach our children the history of our vocabulary and we need them to understand literature in a historical content. If we utilize censorship we neglect the importance of our history and culture (good and bad). If we can censure a work of art because of language, should we censure the Statute of David because of nudity? Every work of art has a place in history including and not limited to the written word. Art challenges us, causes us to think about where we have been and were we are going. It is our job to educate future generations so that the Statute of David can continue to stand and the written word continues challenges our minds and intellect.

  • Steve

    no the essence of a novel is to keep it unchanged thats what makes it a classic. reading a classic is reading in the truest sense because the reader really has to dig to get the full meaning!

  • Steve the Cynic

    “Should an editor change a classic novel to keep from offending modern readers?”


    Should the changing of classic novels to keep from offending modern readers be prohibited (by law or social convention)?

    Also, no.

    It would be great if we could all stop shoulding on each other.

  • Dave

    BTW the word is nigger. The very fact we can not use the word in a discussion of that very word is as absurb as the idea of changing it in the book.

  • Dorothy from Duluth

    Absolutely not! It’s politically correct plagiarism. I teach the novel, and it would lose its effectiveness without the use of the “N-word.” Twain purposely used it for several reasons: first, that’s the word a boy of Huck’s time would have used; next, its repeated use shocks the reader, which underscores the treatments of blacks during that time period. This brings awareness and empathy and anger. Twain knew what he was doing.

  • Tony

    Any editor that changes the text to avoid offending modern readers should also changer his or her face to keep from offending co-workers and pedestrians on the street.

  • Roy

    We should not try to erase or whitewash the past. Students should read Twain or any document as it was published. To edit a work to meet current tastes, sensitivities, or political positions misrepresents it and the social and linguistic dynamics from which it emerged. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is what it is; let us not pretend that it is something else.

    Instead of editing a text, we need to pay attention to words in their context and how they signify. This is the goal of critical reading. To erase “nigger” from Twain’s novel guts the work of its power and significance, and misrepresents the violence of race and racism in America and American literature.

    Moreover, I am a little confused about the uproar over the word nigger. When its signifying power was linked to slavery, Jim Crow, and racism the media and the majority of white people didn’t want to erase the word from American English. It was used freely and its printing and vocalization was largely a non-issue. More importantly, for hundreds of years black people in America have taken nigger and many other words and altered both their denotative and connotative significance. Nigger has been “transvalued” and reconfigured in black speech and arts. (See black American folklore for various examples of the transformation of nigger in black speech and letters.) Americans need to become familiar and face the uncomfortable history of nigger and other words in American language and literature and their reconfiguration in black American culture.

  • JBlilie

    Ms. de Nim:

    I can see why there is a demand for an edition of Huckleberry Finn without the “N” word, and I would be loath to forbid scholars to meet that demand. Free markets and free speech, you know.

    I also have no problem with anyone publishing (more or less) anything they want to. However, it should be a violation of law to call it by the same title: That would be a deceptive practice.

    It should be titled, per my previous note: Dr Alan Gribben’s Bowdlerized Version of Huckleberry Finn. I have no issues with that whatsoever.

    No one should feel comfortable presenting a bowdlerized version as if it were the real thing. And I would have no problem with legally prohibiting such.

  • In reading many of the comments, I came across the man who wants to erase the past. IDIOT! And the very idea that this question was even raised, is offensive to me, an avid reader of the classics.

  • Sue de Nim

    JBlilie, your point is well taken. However, there is nothing deceptive about what Dr. Gribben is doing. He has been thoroughly open, even about his own misgivings and reservations about the project. I would hope his emendation is fully explained in a preface, so readers would be aware of what he’s done. I wouldn’t read the bowdlerized version myself, but if it gets people to read Twain who otherwise wouldn’t, who am I to object?

  • bill cosgrove

    Emphatically NO. Many classic works are intended to shock readers, including Twain’s. As for the n- word: Where better for young people, black and white alike, to learn about racism than in great literature in a classroom with a sensitive, caring teacher to help? It helps offset and is preferable to the n-words young people will inevitably pick up on every street corner they pass.

  • Steve the Cynic

    To those who are so vehemently opposed to Gribben’s alteration, consider this: most Christian editions of the Bible make a similar word substitution so as to avoid offending Jews. In the Old Testament, God has a proper name, which would be transliterated as Yahweh (or mis-transliterated as Jehovah). However, some time after about 500 BCE Jews decided that it was blasphemous to actually pronounce the name, so they began to substitute Adonai (literally, “my lord”) whenever they read it. It’s in defference to that tradition that Christian Bibles usually replace God’s proper name with “Lord” (usually in small caps) wherever it appears.

    Now, I don’t know of any religion that regards Mark Twain as a prophet, or Huckleberry Finn as sacred scripture, so if folks don’t object when this kind of alteration is made in the Bible, why should there be such a stink raised about Gribben’s work?

  • JBlilie

    Ms. de Nim:

    This is the reason that copyrights and patents exist: To protect the intellectual property from being hijacked. Selling something else under the cover of a famous name (that will sell well) is recognized as a wrong practice.

    People will not read the preface of the book before pruchasing a copy of a book with the title, Huckleberry Finn and the author listed as “Mark Twain”. They will buy based on the cover (for any classic work).

    I would not object to a less perjorative title than the one I listed below. I would be OK with, Huckleberry Finn, As Edited by Dr. Alan Gribben. But to send it out under the same title is clearly deceptive.

    In the industry I work in, if you label something incorrectly, you are liable to a prison term.

    All of this leaves aside what is perhaps the most important issue here: Who is qualified to alter great works of art? A literary work is made up from the same 26 letters as any other speech. What makes it special is the arrangement of those letters into meaning. Change the order and all changes: Call it something different.

    I’ve read HF several times, as a youth and as an adult. The story is largely carried forward by the dialogue; and it is very firmly planted in place and time. To alter this because someone is “offended” by it is plain silly, especially given its purpose of demonstrating the evils of the slave culture.

    Part of growing up is to learn to take being offended in stride. I’d rather the society expends its efforts in this life skill, rather than trying to prevent people being offended.

    Next we’ll have the facts of science removed from science class because religious fanatics are offended by the facts. (This is regularly requested in both public schools and colleges. Any institution craven enough to comply should lose accreditation.)

  • Jennifer

    My gut reaction to this question was a resounding “NO!” If we don’t learn from the past, we’re doomed to repeat it. This learning should include understanding why slurs or other language was ‘acceptable’ at the time. However, in reading the story, I’ve reconsidered. If an undisputed literary masterpiece is banned from many schools and public libraries because of the use of a single word, as in this case, wouldn’t it be better to make an edit, but also explain the reasoning behind it? If Mr. Gribben (or editors to come) include a foreward or notification as to why language was changed, couldn’t more teachers teach this work? Couldn’t this open the conversation? I hope so.

  • Kevin VC

    I would say it is wrong to change it.

    Its a act of censorship.

    This is as bad as the Japanese not covering the actions or World War II or Germans not teaching what the Nazi’s did.

    When we were read the novel as a kid in class it gave our teachers something to teach, other then just a boring novel. It helped them cross over into ‘Social Studies’ and helped cross link classes and their interconnected need to study.

    Without this I likely would have stay away from a book about the boring south and people in primitive United Stated. That it connected the times of then to now.

    Also there is all the ethical issues of not being ‘true’ to the word and work.

    Plus in general it would be just not right sounding.

    I am also not in favor of censoring movies, not that I am in favor of allowing younger kids seeing older movies. Quite the contrary.

    It needs to stand on its own for what it is.

    Imagine rewriting Shakespeare to modern English….

    Granted that still happens to a LIMITED extent, but they always reference the original works, and NOT claim what was done is in anyway a literal translation.

    Sorry, I am not into being POLITICALLY CORRECT. I believe in speaking from the heart.

    Mark Twain spoke from his time and his heart.

    Like him or hate him, it is what it is.

    I am also not aware of any harm from the term use in the book. To me its a wasted effort and time that has really missed the mark if it is done.

  • Peter


  • Tracy

    Absolutely NOT!!! Sure you could release such a book but it is now no longer the book that Mark Twain originally wrote. So sounds to me in doing so the editor is actually committing plagiarism.

  • curt

    Literature should not be edited to be politically correct or in a manner as to not offend a particular group of people. This is part of our history and that would be lost. Besides, where do you stop! Its a silly idea!

  • Douglas

    No, an editor should perhaps add a footnote, but should not change this word.

    Despite Huck’s use of the “N” word, he has great empathy and affection for his friend Jim. This is the real point of the novel.

    Sometimes to be “politically correct,” we lose the forest for the trees.

  • Amy

    I find it unfortunate that we even have to ask this question. The fact that these wonderful works are kept from students is only keeping them from understanding our history in its context. A rewrite of these books does the same.

    To “tone down” the language will diminish the relationship between Huck and Jim, and also the remarkable choices that they both make. The main points of the book will fade.

    The action that should be taken is to present the original author’s work with a preface that explains to immature readers the context in which these books were written. We have come a very long way, and that should be a fact that is presented to our youth so that they can fully understand how history affects them.

  • Roger S. Jones

    NO! “Huckelbery Finn” should not be changed in any way. Regardless of the uses and connotations of the word “nigger” today, it was different in Twain’s time and it should be respected. Great art and great literature in particular should be presented to children as it was written, and children should have the opportunity to read it and discuss it thoughtfully in class. As for adults, no censorship or euphemisms are justified.

  • Nick

    “Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it.”

    –Unknown, but often attributed to Mark Twain

  • Kirk

    This IS really a tough call. I find the N-word to be perhaps the nastiest, most offensive word utterable. To hear it would shock me senseless, far more than any swear word.

    I cannot, however, help but feel a sense of loss at the prospects of it being omitted in this case. I believe that the incredible mar that it placed on ALL of our humanity while in use should never be forgotten.

    As a white person I must wonder if the deletion of this word would not be more of a feeble attempt to dismiss the shame appropriate to the word having ever been in useage, rather than an attempt to undo a wrong.

  • C. David Kearsley

    In 1969, when I was in the 7th Grade, at the Lakeland Middle School in Shrub Oak, New York, my English teacher, Mr. Powers, came to me one day as class was ending, with a concerned look on his face.

    At the time, I was the only African-American in the classroom. I was also one of the two or three highest achieving students in that classroom, which may have been why Mr. Powers approached me in the first place.

    We were preparing to read John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”, which also includes the word “nigger” in its dialog, and Mr. Powers asked me if I would feel either a need to leave the classroom when the dialog in question was read, or a desire that the word be audibly glossed over during our in-class reading.

    In what I have to admit was one of my earliest adult decisions, I told Mr. Powers that we should read the dialog as appears on the page, and that I should be in class when it was read.

    Our still young nation has already established a rich literary tradition. Censorship and/or sanitation of classic texts only serves to degrade that tradition.

    Parenthetically, I tend to regard the use of the term “the N-word” by reporters as an exercise in journalistic cowardice. The word is “nigger”. I first had it directed at me when I was six years old. While racial slurs are admittedly jarring to hear, reporting regarding their use is not the same as using them.

    It’s really all about context.

  • kennedy

    If it is edited it should be clearly marked as such in the title.

    It is ridiculous, though. A work of fiction should be allowed to represent the social norms of the period it depicts. We should not gloss over the fact that our nation at one time did not treat all people equally.

    Should we also edit “Pride and Prejudice” because the gender roles are in conflict with our current society?

  • Thomas Shaw

    It is positively unethical for an editor to fundamentally alter an author’s work without their knowledge and consent. Removing an author’s well chosen words is no the editor’s job. Remember, Clemens himself said that the difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and lightning bug.

    Modern readers should be offended by some of his language but that is no reason to remove it. The editor would be better to confine his editorializing to the introduction.

  • Alex V

    There are “clean” versions of all kinds of movies and music. What’s the big deal? Teachers and Parents can choose the clean or the original version depending on their needs. no problem right?

  • bsimon

    If an editor changes a classic novel in the name of political correctness, is it still a classic novel?

  • Carol

    NO…Twain should not be changed! He was a genius and this is one of his most important books. Teachers should be able to educate their students as to his meaning and the significance of this book. Should we edit every book with offensive language? Twain is probably rolling over in his grave although maybe not so surprised.

  • Jeanette

    I am an African-American and feel the book should remain as written by the author. The N word speaks directly to the psyche of this country at the time the book was written. The word “slave” does not speak to the specific identity of black slaves. A dirty little secret this country holds is that there were also white slaves in this country; whites were not just indentured servants but slaves as well. Thousands of whites were kidnapped from the British Isles, mostly Scotts and Irish and sold as slaves in the West Indies and America. Whites were kidnapped from northern states and sold as slaves in the South. White slaves worked along side black slaves and slavery didn’t become associated only with blacks until will into the later part of the 1800s. The changing of this book is akin to the Texas school board removing reference to the Atlantic slave trade from the history books. If teachers are concerned about the N word, try teaching some of the writings of Fredrick Douglas along with Mark Twain and give students a historical perspective from the black point as well.

  • Art

    Should it be changed, you ask? Realistically, it cannot be changed … not any more than someone can “change” Mozart’s music. I chortle at people, pretending to be adults, who are cowed by words. If they can’t deal with certain words, perhaps they should not be reading books.

  • James

    Quote “Maybe we should consider putting underwear on Michalangelo’s David” (Judy Benson | January 5, 2011 8:18 AM)

    If I remember correctly, someone did something like that to one of Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel. Some pieces of cloth were added to the painting.

  • Sue de Nim


    Since he has been dead for over 100 years, all of Mark Twain’s copyrights have expired, so that’s not an issue.

  • winoceros

    How interesting the way the columnist shapes the question: “…to keep from offending modern readers”

    Assuming the question logical fallacy, to my view…modern readers would somehow be offended by a 19th-century writer and satirist using a literary device to highlight social possibility, the path to manhood, and learning about people by bypassing prejudices.

    For Pete’s sake, what a nation of pansies this ivory-tower academic would have us be. Please ask the esteemed professor if he is in favor of the Qur’an being edited, and none too soon, to keep from offending the modern reader. He would of course continue to present it as the original Qur’an, right?

    Obscene, what passes for integrity, character, grit, adulthood from these people. Grow up.

  • Mrs.Katwoman

    Let’s remember that widespread use of a word doesn’t necessarily change it’s meaning. Even in Twain’s time, the word ‘nigger’ still held hateful and bigoted connotations. That’s why he used it. Twain was a master of irony, and I think that this edition might diminish some of that.

    Plus, the more we hide from the word, the more intriguing it becomes. Truth is, it’s just a word. It may represent hate and suffering, but that’s the meaning we gave to it. The real problem is not that the word is used, but that it and other slurs exist at all. How can we teach that hate is not acceptable if we pretend some forms of it don’t exist?

  • Pam

    it would be the same as taking the word Jew, which can be used in a derogatory way by tone of voice, out of Mein Kampf. Being Jewish, I have heard it used in this manner, even when the party stupidly opening his or her mouth, knew I am Jewish.

    These books are a part of history, really? It is like anything else, if it offends you, don’t listen, look at, or read it. But certainly do not change or censor it.

  • Peter T

    Yes, the exchange of words should be possible for books that are read in school, if the exchange allows students to read the novel with an open mind instead of being fixated on the few original words that are forbidden in today’s conversation. I don’t know myself if this was the case for Huckleberry Finn, so I take the editors word for it that it was, until shown otherwise. A library, however, should make the original at least as available as the modified version, and, of course, only the original version should be studied in college.

  • Shoshana

    I am not sure how many Black people have commented on this question, as I have only seen one person identify their race. I am going to assume that the majority of the contributors are White, based on my understanding of MPR’s listening audience. I am glad that White people are responding, as all too often, I have heard White colleagues relegate any discussion of racial issues to people of color. That being said, I do have what I consider to be a minority perspective in this audience. I am Black and Jewish, have been called a nigger multiple times in my life, and have held countless conversations with my students about what they need to consider before choosing to use “nigger” or “nigga” as a “friendly” slang word. I fully agree that the book should remain uncensored for two reasons:

    1. All books should remain uncensored.

    2. We need to acknowledge how freely people use dehumanizing language in the past and present, if we are to challenge people’s current and future use of dehumanizing language.

    Lastly, I disagree with those who tried to compare this censorship with the hypothetical censorship of other works of art. David’s naked body, Mozart’s works do not contain dehumanizing language directly linked to rape, enslavement and lynching. We can protect Mark Twain’s beautiful, brilliant work from censorship without comparing the word nigger to a sculpture’s penis or the Dissonant String Quartet.

    One more thing: From a teacher’s perspective, when we teach this book, we MUST discuss the dehumanizing language, and let ourselves and our students explore the discomfort.

  • Shoshana Daniels

    Correction: I have seen two Black people, in addition to myself, and one White person, identify their race.

  • Jess M

    I 100% disagree with making a mockery of a piece of literary history. To change a classic piece of writing is offensive to me. Our PAST is our PAST and our HISTORY is our HISTORY.. we can’t change it, but we should embrace it, in all it’s horrors and glory’s. Learn from what was right and what was wrong. Bottom line is you can’t change the past. Why try.. It’s always going to there, and there will always be someone to tell the real and true story!

  • Steven Boyer

    This is an astonishingly stupid question and one that could only be asked in a supposedly serious manner in an environment, perhaps era, of ignorance.

  • Jennifer

    How many other offensive name calling words are out there that we haven’t obolished or burried…… Spic, crout, wet back, nazi, engine! Why is it just THIS word??

    This is a classic historical piece, that word was placed there for an effect, for a reason!!

    We can not change history!! We should not ignore history or it will repeat itself!! We need to teach or children respect, and the choice not to use these offensive words, just like swear words….. “burrying them” and deleting them from text is not going to change the fact that they were thought up!!

  • James

    Language evolves, it changes over time. I cannot read the English used by Chaucer in “The Canterbury Tales.” I need a translation.

    That is how I regard this: as a translation of Twain’s work.

    Having said that, I have to wonder how good a translation it is. It has been a long time since I read “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Was ever used to refer to an African American who had been freed? If so, using the word “slave” in that context would be an error.

    Good translators of literature don’t go for a literal translation. They try, in their translations, to preserve moods and feelings that are conveyed in the original language.


    Harvard Law professor Randal Kennedy wrote a book “Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word.” Although I’ve not read it, I have heard that it was not a pejorative when first used, although it was a pejorative in Mark Twain’s time. Perhaps someday, the word can be reclaimed, losing its power to hurt.

  • Better Then You

    Do we not have more important things to worry about in life?

  • tom

    this is america! we can say whatever we want. if people dont like the nigger word they can get the f out of this country. nigger nigger nigger. if they aint white they aint right

  • Peter T


    if people dont like the nigger word they can get the f out of this country. nigger nigger nigger. if they aint white they aint right

    I disagree. People of this country can expect not to be insulted to their face. If the book is mandatory in class, the edited version might help some students to read it (the edited version, however, should not replace the original in the library).

  • Amelia

    Not reading what was said above, here is my initial comment:

    Having been an avid reader throughout high school, and now into college, I don’t think that the “n word,” should be changed in the classics – specifically Mark Twain’s work.

    That being said, I can understand, and appreciate where Dr. Gribben is coming from. He mentioned in his interview that I heard this evening that if he’s going to go down in history as the individual that changed the “n word” so that classical literature could continue to be taught in read in the schools, he could live with that.

    I agree with that.

    However, this is my main thought/point: Mark Twain’s literature isn’t going to be read and appreciated by just “anybody” – especially high schoolers.

    Maybe that’s ignorant to say. But I know that my peers in high school weren’t apt at to pick up books, let alone classic literature. When “The Great Gatsby” was assigned in school, it was received with many complaints, and few actually reading the material.

    Those that choose to read classical literature, like myself, can/will understand where the author is coming from, and what the author is attempting to communicate.

    In Twain’s writing, his choice of using the “n word” was to recreate his childhood growing up in Mississippi – it wasn’t intended to be offensive.

    I feel that to take offensive words out, takes away from the material. The “n word” was used in the past – it’s important that this part of history not be erased and eliminated. It’s critical not to change the past.

  • Mark Twain lived in a racist time in American history. The descendants of the people who perpetrated this atrocity see nothing wrong with continuing the language conventions of that period. The question must be asked, Why is Mark Twain considered a classic? Is it because the people of that time period, who raised him to this “classic,” level did so because he represented their reprehensible views. What I mean by this is if the Nazi’s had won World War II we today would consider the anti semitic writings of Hitler as classic. Today, however we don’t consider his speeches as classic. We, or most of us, recognize them as the ruminations of a mad man and no one insists that we read his insane speeches and in fact if someone read them aloud in a public high school today they would be censored. I think it’s a good idea that the “N” word be changed in Samuel Clemons works. I have heard Americans from the southern states refusing to ban the Confederate flag using the same reasoning. They insist they simply want to honor their history. I wonder if some Nazi’s decided they wanted to honor their flag if Americans who died in WWII would support their efforts? Of course not! Why should we, “honor” the madness of our racist past either even it wraps the flag of, classic literature around itself? In my book, Talking Penny I address this very issue in the poem, “Bees and Enns.”

  • Allyson

    (I’m a middle aged white woman.)

    I dislike the idea of changing the language in Mark Twain’s novel. I think that high school students and others who read it are capable of understanding that the language used was a reflection of how people spoke and thought at the time. In a teaching setting, discussion of how language changes and why words have so much power to offend could be more beneficial than the content of the book itself. Many books have language that is offensive to someone and in fact the controversy and conflict is often what makes the books interesting.

    On the other hand, the “N word” was not as emotionally charged among Mark Twain’s readers as it is today. Removing it could allow for reading, analyzing and enjoying the book without the distraction getting in the way of the other themes.

  • Chad

    So let me get this straight – Nigger is synonomous with slave? so that would mean vice versa correct? Every time someone mentions nigger they are saying the same thing as calling them a slave? Then what is the problem? Black people are not slaves today and they know it so why does this offend? If someone called me gay I would not get offended simply because I know I am not gay. Getting offended by something usually means the offended person feels some sort of guilt or remorse for being whatever they are being called, either self-inflicted or societies pressure guilt. The fact that history can be so easily rewritten in todays highly communicative society makes you wonder how much of the history that we know today is actually true. Do you all really think this is the first time something like this has happened? As I recall the Catholic church rewrote history many times either by force or destruction of the medium used to document history. Things will never change and people will find any reason to make excuses for themselves. I gurantee that this whole thing was not brought about by anyone other than a black group such as NAACP, and just happens to make news around MLK Jr. day. We whites have lost folks, this is a country slowly being taken over by minorities. Somehow it always the whites against someone – blacks, mexicans, it used to be asians. The Jewish people manage to stay out of all this… how? hegemony? The powerful will put the underclassed in the ring and let them fight it out. It is entertainment for them and keeps everyone in their place arguing a moot point. Instead of looking for answers we as free-thinking people need to start asking more questions of ourselves and those around us. The differences will not go away, but why must we change only the history of the white people? Nazi history is slowly erased just by ignoring it. Slavery in the America is slowly being erased. No matter what, the people complaining will not be happy until whites become the minority without a history. I would like to see more actions in the present and less time spent worrying about the past generations decisions. If things didn’t happen the way they did we would not be where we are today. For everyone complaining think about something like chaos theory. Change one thing and everything changes. If the true complaint is about the state of the country today then do as the other man said so rudely and just leave this country, trust me we will not mind!

  • Katrin Matzke

    I do not believe in changing classics to fit modern tastes. That would be like painting clothes on all of the classic paintings from back in the day.

    The reader must respect the cultural differences and context of when it was written. The word is offensive and vulgar and yet that was what the people back then said.

  • You really found a way to make this whole process eiaser.