Friday, 7 January 2011

My Huckleberry Friend

As a child, I remember Dad reading me the Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and his comrade Huckleberry Finn

huck finn

And we watched the 1938 film together in the early 1960s on our little black and white TV.

tom sawyer

Dad told me all about Mark Twain aka Samuel Langhorne Clemens – where his pen name came from, his witticisms – and how Twain loathed racism.

mark twain

So I wasn’t altogether happy to read [here] that Huck Finn is being republished in a ‘Bowdlerised’ version. According to the BBC website…

First published in 1884, Huckleberry Finn is considered one of the great American novels.

While telling the story of a boy's journey down the Mississippi River some time between 1835 and 1845, the novel satirises Southern attitudes on race and slavery.

"The book is an anti-racist book and to change the language changes the power of the book," said Cindy Lovell, executive director of The Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum in Hannibal, Missouri.

"He wrote to make us squirm and to poke us with a sharp stick. That was the purpose," she told Reuters news agency.

The novel has often been criticised for its language and characterisations and it is reported to be the fourth most banned book in US schools.

The "N-word" appears 219 times in the story.

I feel that the book should remain as it was written – in order to make the point. I am aware that the “N-word” is now offensive, and would not use it – but then it was in common usage and it is, to my mind, an essential part of the book. Surely it is part of the task of the teachers of literature to explain such things ot their pupils?

Can we take all classic literature and obliterate the parts which represent attitudes which are currently considered to be inappropriate/offensive/wrong? Who is going to decide what stays and what goes? And if that happens, what will be left?

Twain himself was very particular about his words, and did not take kindly to editing. He is quoted as saying that "the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter".

The New York Times has said in an editorial

“There is no way to 'clean up' Twain without doing irreparable harm to the truth of his work”

It does seem that the majority opinion in the States is that this new edition is pointless.

It may be the 4th most banned book in US Schools [what are the others?] but after all, Twain himself did say

God made the Idiot for practice, and then He made the School Board.

I think I shall stop ranting…

It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt


  1. To Kill a Mockingbird uses the N word and is part of GCSE English Lit. When I studied it sparked a lot of discussion on the uses of words, there changing meanings and if it is ok to use words in literature that we would not with each other

  2. Now I'm really puzzled because I read it when I was Son 1's age and don't even remember that aspect of the book! Actually, I found it pretty hard to understand the language, so maybe I should try again.

    The French would love that quote about 'the right word'. AND they don't clean up stories one little bit - we discovered all the horrible bits in fairy tales are still alive and kicking here in France, although they'd been deleted from the English-language versions around the time I was a child.

  3. Leave it as it was written. Are we not intelligent enough to understand the context?
    There is some pretty 'rough stuff' in the Bible that next on the ban list?
    Jane x

  4. I agree entirely with your point Angela although I have for many years tried to stop my mother referring to "nigger brown " shoe polish. This from a woman who has an Anglo-Indian son-in-law, 2 British Asian grandsons-in-law and 3 dual heritage great grandchildren. I think she just does it to annoy !!

  5. Ann - when I was at Uni in the early 1970's, Patons & Baldwins still had that colour listed on their shade card for 4ply brown wool [I know, cos my landlady's sister ran the wool shop!]
    I think your Mum is just winding you up!

  6. "God made the Idiot for practice, and then He made the School Board." There is a great deal of truth in that!! Same goes for some publishers. They are meddling with God's gender. How stupid can one be. ~Liz

  7. This is all about limiting Free Speech. After all, censorship is everywhere. The gov’t (and their big business cronies) censor free speech, shut down dissent and ban the book “America Deceived II”. Free speech for all, especially Mark Twain.
    Last link (before Google Books bans it also]:

  8. I heard this on the news today- Nanny State. We have just been watching Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang and I imagine that someone who lets you sleep with an elephant would trust you to read intelligently!

  9. Like Floss, I read Huck Finn as a girl and I don't remember the n-word. Maybe it just seemed natural in the context of the story and didn't stick out.

    I don't even understand how one can choose to change a word in a copyrighted text. Really, it's just nuts.



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