First the Book Haven — then the world. The Huck Finn “n-word” ignites the nation.


A classic: "a book which people praise and don't read."

Well, well, well.  We don’t like to brag … not much, anyway … but the whole world seems to have picked up on the Huck Finn and the n-word story, which started here a few day ago, thanks to a reader tip.  (If you find a story prior to our Dec. 31 post, let us know. We’re curious.)  Another case of the power of the blog, even a relatively obscure one.  We’re not Huffington Post, after all.

We started it, Books Inq picked it up Jan. 2, Bookshelves of Doom carried it later in the same day … then Publisher’s Weekly ran a story yesterday, the Entertainment Weekly published an article here, which was deluged with over 1,000 comments.

Unsurprisingly, EW writes:

Unsurprisingly, there are already those who are yelling “Censorship!” as well as others with thesauruses yelling “Bowdlerization!” and “Comstockery!”

Actually, we used the word “Bowdlerization,” and think people are smart enough to know the origins of the word and the 19th century editor Thomas Bowdler who made Shakespeare “respectable” for the fainting couch crowd.

EW continues:

The original product is changed for the benefit of those who, for one reason or another, are not mature enough to handle it, but as long as it doesn’t affect the original, is there a problem?

Frank Wilson at Books Inq exploded at that one in a post titled “Dumb Reaction“:   “Well, the point is that it does affect the original. Something else from Wittgenstein: ‘One age misunderstands another; and a petty age misunderstands all others in its own nasty way.'”

CNN picked up the EW story — and from there, the world.  From CNN:

Quote of the day: “What’s next? We take out the sexual innuendo from Shakespeare? Or make Lenny Small “normal”? How about cut all the violence out of Clockwork Orange? ” –AA

A pretty close paraphrase of what we said.

A couple more comments:

jujube said, “So it’s a children’s edition of ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ Adults can and should still read the original. I don’t get the outrage.”

Bobby said, “So we take the ‘n’ word out of Huck Finn, but all of these rappers and hip hop stars still say it every other word, and that’s fine?”

Publishers Weekly actually went so far as to write the n-word, which occurs in Twain’s book 219 times.  It also noted that Twain himself defined a “classic” as “a book which people praise and don’t read.” This one may be different.  Its article also notes that the new edition dispenses with the “in-word” — that is to say, “Injun.”

Dr. Gribben recognizes that he’s putting his reputation at stake as a Twain scholar,” said [NewSouth cofounder Suzanne] La Rosa. “But he’s so compassionate, and so believes in the value of teaching Twain, that he’s committed to this major departure. I almost don’t want to acknowledge this, but it feels like he’s saving the books. His willingness to take this chance—I was very touched.”

We posted a reply from NewSouth this morning as a postscript on our original post.

By the way, Garrison Keillor wrote a reaction to the newly published Autobiography of Mark Twain in the New York Times a few weeks ago here: “Samuel L. Clemens was a cheerful promoter of himself, and even after he’d retired from the lecture circuit, the old man liked to dress up as Mark Twain…”  Spoiler:  He didn’t like it much.

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2 Responses to “First the Book Haven — then the world. The Huck Finn “n-word” ignites the nation.”

  1. Roseanne Sullivan Says:

    Since your bit about Garrison Kielor’s reaction to the autobiography of Mark Twain was a bit of a digression (not about the N word at all), I’ll digress a bit off of that digression. I met Garrison Kielor, attended many of Garrison’s shows, went backstage with friends who performed and went to a few parties he also reluctantly attended, and I can vouch that early in his career, Garrison Kielor too seemingly liked to dress up as Mark Twain. He wore Twain-like white suits at the World Theatre while performing on his radio show with a live audience, and he dressed up the white suit with his own addition of red socks and suspenders for quite some time.

    Garrison too is a cheerful promoter of himself. When he was an English undergrad at the U. of Minn., before he dropped out, he walked around campus with a New Yorker pretentiously tucked under his arm. He had gotten one humorous story published in the New Yorker, amazingly from the slush pile (I guess they read the slush pile those days), about some parents who wanted to help their son concentrate, and so they hired a live-in prostitute for the high-schooler.

    The prestige of being a New Yorker writer for even that one flash-in-the-pan-story opened doors for him, and he started DeeJaying a classical music show on a public radio show in Collegeville, MN. He made up advertisements for businesses in the mythical Lake Woebegone, places like Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery, and Jack’s Auto Repair, where “all tracks lead to Jack’s, where the bright flashing lights show you the way to complete satisfaction.” His becoming famous as a radio humorist is what led to his being published (his first book was about Lake Woebegone) and to his eventually having a stint as a full-time staff member at the New Yorker and to have a kind of a stinker movie made about his show, with him playing the romantic lead with Meryl Streep.

    I don’t grudge Twain’s use of the N word. To me it’s like the people who moan over the use of the word “man” in Scripture. All of a sudden we have lost the ability to understand simple ideas, such as “man” is an inclusive word that includes all of “mankind,” men and women. The N word was common parlance, and it was not used negatively by Twain. The N word is derived from a word that simply means “black.”

    It’s amazing to me that people will champion the “right” of free speech when it comes to pornography, and from the other side of their segregated minds accept the censorship of someone’s use of another type of word.

    Twain’s portrayal of the black character Joe was sympathetic and made him seem more moral than everyone else. If colored was the polite term at the time, one has to think that it is senseless to bowlderize the N word, which indicates a color too. It was never used by Twain as an insult. So what a teacher has to do is simply say something to that effect, and discourage an oversensitive reaction to the word. Or am I being naive to want consistency in matters like these?

    Yesterday, Mother Jones ran an article about it too:

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    I’m sorry, Roseanne… I couldn’t finish reading your post. I halted, mesmerized, at the notion that the New Yorker used to read through its slush piles.

    Was there really such a time? Or is it quasi-myth, like the Age of Pericles?