Did Twain Use the “N” Word or “Nigger Jim?”

Reminds me of those folks who colorize films and edit out the rough parts of “R” films for family viewing.  Oh, did I mention putting clothes on “The Naked Maja?”  There are folks so obsessed with what they perceive as propriety that they would rewrite history.  History is rewritten enough as it is always written by the victors.  Minority views are discouraged.

Twain’s original text is a window to the time, Who WE were then.  We cannot dream that we had been so acculturated that our actions would be so different.  We were not born with the beliefs we hold dear.  From God to integration, and our evolving system of law we are the children of our time as they were of theirs.

Thomas Bowdler, in the 18th century at first edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays and later felt that “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”  needed touching up.  Let the Bowdlerizers do what they will and let them forever be remembered for what they’ve done.

That’s Not Twain

Published: January 5, 2011

Next month, you will be able to buy the single- volume NewSouth Edition of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” edited by Professor Alan Gribben of Auburn University at Montgomery. It differs from other editions of those books because Mr. Gribben has turned the word “nigger” — as used by Tom and Huck — into “slave.” Mr. Gribben has also changed “Injun” to Indian.

Mr. Gribben says he wants to make these American classics readable again — for young readers and for anyone who is hurt by the use of an epithet that would have been ubiquitous in Missouri in the 1830s and 1840s, which is when both books are set. He says he discovered how much Twain’s language offended readers when he began giving talks about “Tom Sawyer” all across Alabama in 2009. He has also acknowledged that what he calls “textual purists” will be horrified by his sanitized versions of the two classics.

We are horrified, and we think most readers, textual purists or not, will be horrified too. The trouble isn’t merely adulterating Twain’s text. It’s also adulterating social, economic and linguistic history. Substituting the word “slave” makes it sound as though all the offense lies in the “n-word” and has nothing to do with the institution of slavery. Worse, it suggests that understanding the truth of the past corrupts modern readers, when, in fact, this new edition is busy corrupting the past.

When “Huckleberry Finn” was published, Mark Twain appended a note on his effort to reproduce “painstakingly” the dialects in the book, including several backwoods dialects and “the Missouri negro dialect.” What makes “Huckleberry Finn” so important in American literature isn’t just the story, it’s the richness, the detail, the unprecedented accuracy of its spoken language. There is no way to “clean up” Twain without doing irreparable harm to the truth of his work.

A version of this editorial appeared in print on January 6, 2011, on page A26 of the New York edition.

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About carlos

I'm a curious person, of reasonable intellect, "on the beach" (retired) and enjoying my interest in anthropology, language, civil rights, and a few other areas. I've been a hippie/student/aerospace tech writer in the '60s, a witness to the Portuguese revolution in the ‘70s, a defense test engineer and witness to the Guatemalan genocide in the '80s, and a network engineer for an ISP in the '90s. Now I’m a student and commentator until my time is up. I've spent time under the spell of the Mesoamerican pyramids and the sweet sound of the Portuguese language. I've lived in Europe, traveled in Brazil, Central America, Iceland, New Zealand, and other places. My preferred mode of travel is with a backpack and I eat (almost) anything local. Somehow, many of the countries I have been to have had civil unrest (for which I was not responsible). I'm open to correspond with anyone who might share my liberal, humanist interests. I live in San Buenaventura, California.
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