Don't Edit Me After I'm Dead

by Rachel Baker on January 6, 2011

I’m sure some of you by now have heard about the new edition of Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “Tom Sawyer.”

If you haven’t read about it, here’s the Publisher’s Weekly article from January 3, 2011,  and here’s the followup article from yesterday, which includes the editor’s explanation.  For a more indepth excerpt of the editors decision please click here.

Alright the housekeeping is out of the way.

I want to talk about racism in literature.  In modern times, a white writer calling a man a ‘n-word’ is a bad, bad thing – we all know this – even though its prevalent in our music and our schools.  One just doesn’t do this – unless the background of his/her story is the deep south forty years ago or prior.  Its just not done – its socially unacceptable.  Right?

Case in point:

The white photographer and writer, Carl Van Vechten, a supporter of the Harlem Renaissance (1920s–30s), provoked controversy in the black community with the title of his novel Nigger Heaven (1926), wherein the usage increased sales; of the controversy, Langston Hughes wrote:”No book could possibly be as bad as Nigger Heaven has been painted. And no book has ever been better advertised by those who wished to damn it. Because it was declared obscene, everybody wanted to read it, and I’ll venture to say that more Negroes bought it than ever purchased a book by a Negro author. Then, as now, the use of the word nigger by a white was a flashpoint for debates about the relationship between black culture and its white patrons.”

[Wikipedia contributors, “Nigger,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed January 6, 2011).]

But what happens when you start re-writing history and changing the words that prominent writers used from the 20th century and before?  See, my problem with this new edition is it glosses over the history of Mark Twain’s world.

Twain wrote a book where a little white boy and a black man became friends.  Unheard of at the beginning his lifetime (father was a slaveholder, mother’s dowry included a couple of slaves) – though maybe not so much towards the end.  However, abolitionist were certainly prevalent and the views of slavery were changing throughout his whole life.  Further, the bad guy was an Indian – probably a reflection of how the country saw Indians during his lifetime.  Indians were bad and evil and few really thought about the fact that they were fighting for their rights to their ancestral lands.

Let’s go back for a minute and look at the American History that happened during Twain’s life (1835-1910). When he was a little boy, there was the Panic of 1837 which led to an economic depression.  There was the war with Mexico (over land that ultimately became part of the United States), Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published, Chinese immigrants were working on the railroads (which by the way went through Indian territories) Kansas in 1855 banned slavery and blacks, mass production of steel was invented, Lincoln was elected president after losing to Frederick Douglas in a senate race two years earlier, the Civil War happened, Lincoln was shot, Reconstruction began, in 1870 blacks got the right to vote, though women did not, the 43rd Congress had seven black members, Jim Crow laws were enacted in Tennessee, in 1883 the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was declared unconstitutional.  And then Huck Finn was published in December 1884 in England and February 1885 in the U.S.  Two years later, there were no Black members in Congress. Six years later 200 Native American women and children were massacred by U.S. Troops at the Battle of Wounded Knee.

Alright, so with that time-line, its very easy to surmise that Twain wrote a social commentary in Huckleberry Finn (it took eight years to write).  Looking at the book today, its even easier to think Huck Finn was a commentary about racism. Over time, Huck begins to know and understand Jim’s life, and begins to see him not as a slave, but a person, which begins to change the way Huck views slavery. Twain turned Jim into a human being, not a slave which then was only considered a piece of property to be bought and sold and worked like a horse.

To turn Jim into a slave throughout the book by replacing the offensive usages is to take away some of this social commentary about how people treated other people.  By the way, the n-word as we call it today was in common usage during the Pre-Civil War periods (read the literature from that time period, you’ll see).  For an interesting look at the history of the word, click here.   Something I found interesting here was that as early as the 1950s the word was acceptable in British English.  Interestingly because of the difficulty in obtaining copyrights during Twain’s time, his books had to be published in England prior to the US.  And Huck Finn was only actually available when it was published here in the US on a subscription basis only.

My problem with this whole new edition is you can’t re-write history because your delicate sensibilities say its not okay to use a word or phrase that completely was appropriate for the time period. There’s enough re-writing of history without touching our literature.

I am a big proponent of looking at the historic time-lines of an author’s life prior to a book being written to help understand what the book is about under the surface.  Specifically, what I’m looking for is not the glossed over versions of history we learned in our early education.  I want the gritty, dirty, disgusting secrets that we don’t like to tell our children about until they are older and can maybe question what the hell these people were thinking.

I think that’s why this editorial decision is so appalling to me. This decision does not allow our children the opportunity to ask the questions that are important when it comes to how to treat other human beings.  Here’s the thing, if the only thing our kids get in school is a glossing over of a ten minute lecture of slavery in the American South as a lead in for why Eli Whitney’s cotton gin was such an important invention (and then immediately into the industrial period in the north, thank you underground railroad for providing workers), our kids will not understand the historical basis for the Civil Rights Movements of the 20th century.  They just won’t.  Putting two and two together with that tiny bit of knowledge doesn’t happen.  More importantly, changing the word to ‘slave’ seems to me like it robs the younger children of the full history of the American Black people.  First there were slaves, then there were black people, then there were African Americans? Something is missing.  The labels used throughout history for a group of peoples often denotes a specific time in their personal histories.  Why would we take this history away from the younger generations by deleting it from a literary work from an important period of our national history?

Shame on anyone who wants Huckleberry Finn banned.  Shame on anyone who wants to change a word that a historic literary figure used in a novel that turned out to be a social commentary on several levels.  Shame on anyone who thinks changing a word will some how make it ‘all better’.
Reality: Some of our ancestors thought it was okay to treat other people like animals.
Reality: Some of our ancestors kicked people off their lands in the name of enterprise and development of a new nation.
Reality: Some of our ancestors killed other human beings because they were different.
Reality: American history is sometimes a really ugly affair.
Reality: It happened.

Reality: Racism happened, and is still going on.  You can’t change Dickens, or Kipling, or Haggard, or Rice, or Twain and pretend it never existed.  It did; and it happened in way worse ways than it does today.  And frankly, the only way to really understand what happened is to read the literature of those who lived during the times it happened. Balance that with the history books and maybe, just maybe we’ll have a better picture of what life was really like.  More importantly, we may have children that grow up into more analytical thinkers who don’t just take the popular opinion as gospel, rather than questioning what the real story really is.

Here’s a video with some clippings of several commentators on the topic throughout the news (Thanks to Rosa at for bringing this to my attention):

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