Blog,  Rants,  Reflections

Huck Finn Controversy

Hi, everyone! I realize this topic is a little old, and that last month (February is Black History Month) would have probably been a more fitting time to post this, but seeing as I’ve been insanely busy with barely enough time to WANT to write an entry of this kind, now that I’m feeling it, I’m gonna write it 🙂

Months ago, the writing world was up in arms about a publishing company that decided to put out a censored version of Mark Twain’s famous Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where all the “n” words were to be replaced with “slave” and other non-P.C. words replaced likewise. Without much stretch of the imagination, seeing as the whole writing word is based heavily on freedom of speech and not being censored, this did not go over well.

I read Huck Finn in high school, and I remember thinking it was an interesting read with a compelling story, though somewhat unnerving to run into the “n” word and “injun” so frequently. But that was part of its interest: it was controversial and it was supposed to be. Mark Twain not only wrote it to reflect the times he lived in but also to reflect the harsh racial insensitivity of his world.

So, being an author and a fan of what this book was and was achieving as far as awareness, when I heard news about the censorship, I was filled with a sort of hopeless frustration. Nothing can be done about it, but HOW COULD THEY!? You’re a PUBLISHER, man! You publish books! You should know better!

The general frustration of everyone is well expressed in this CNN article: P.C. insult to a Mark Twain classic.

In a nutshell:

  • Ron Powers says new edition of “Huckleberry Finn” that removes the N-word is an affront
  • New version is by publisher that produces books with sunny view of South, he says
  • Editor Alan Gribben suggested subbing word with “slave”
  • Powers: Some celebrating secession anniversary; edition’s timing adds to revisionist history

Oh, yeah, no one’s happy about this. In fact this page has Facebook “Likes” in the 4,000s!

But I started wondering if anyone had a differing opinion, and I didn’t have to look far to find it. In fact, the angry article had a link inside of it leading to another article, written, interestingly, by a black American man; Cutting N-word from Twain is not censorship.


  • Boyce Watkins says censorship usually wrong; taking n-word from Twain not pure censorship
  • Editor of new “Huck Finn” edition makes some teachers, parents more likely to teach it, he says
  • To say that “filtering” content is unethical is unrealistic; parents do it all the time, he says
  • Watkins: Freedom of artist should exist with freedom to reject art and create alternative

The author Watkins says,

Long before I became a scholar, I was a black teenage boy. At that time, I would never have enjoyed hearing my English teacher repeat the N-word 219 times out loud in front of a class full of white students. I also would have wondered why African-Americans are the only ethnic group forced to read “classic” literature that uses such derogatory language toward us in a disturbingly repetitive way. . . . I don’t need to hear the N-word 219 times to know that it is hurtful.

Interesting indeed! The pendulum swings the other way!

As usual, I find myself somewhere in the middle. I am NOT a fan of censorship, but I don’t want to remind people of their ancestors’ horrible pasts by reminding them so cruelly, especially if the reminders would bring THEM down in the process. It’s particularly interesting to hear Watkin’s point of view, whose rights are supposed to be being protected by NOT censoring this book, yet he doesn’t really see it that way. Very interesting indeed.

I guess we’ll see what the fall out of this edited version is. It may do no more harm than an abridged version of 20000 Leagues Under the Sea and just make it more accessible, giving the ability to look back objectively.

“Well, it’s a blame ridicklous way, en I doan’ want to hear no mo’ ’bout it. Dey ain’ no sense in it.” (Jim to Huck)

I end with two thoughts. Have other books had this problem, particularly ones that talk about race or other rights? I’ve never read Uncle Tom’s Cabin but I’m interested to see how Harriet Beecher Stowe handles vocabulary.

And, I keep wondering what Mark Twain would say about this whole thing. He’s such a wonderfully witty and sarcastic writer I’d love to read that essay. But he did have this to say:

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.

Author’s Notice, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn


One Comment

  • Rosanne

    I blogged about this same subject a few months ago too:

    I tackled a few different subjects, including the censorship aspect and questioned how difficult a decision it would be for the teacher or administrator to decide which version to use in school. The articles I found did make the argument about making the book more accessible to readers, but I didn’t think about the perspective of an American black man who would find it offensive.

    It is only one edition though and everyone isn’t out to change all the versions.

    It’s a very troubling situation indeed but I have problems with Boyce Watkins’ choice of words on “pure censorship”

    Censorship is censorship no matter how small.

    Have a good read,


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