Rough Waters for Huck and Jim

Photo by shimgray

Some friends have asked me what I thought of the latest attempt by Auburn Professor Alan Gribben to sanitize Huckleberry Finn by removing all instances of the N-epithet. (By the way, if you tuned in here hoping to hear me use the the term, you're out of luck. Go buy your own copy of the book, big spender.)

In one sense, there's nothing new to this story, and nothing controversial either. As Jon Stewart points out, previous editors have gone so far as to eliminate the character of Jim altogether. And the book is long since in the public domain. Gribben is legally entitled to recast Jim as a space alien, a hot cheerleader, or anything else that tickles his fancy.

But is it a good idea? Of course not, at least not if one is concerned with preserving the essence of the book. But it is an understandable idea. The conceptual error at heart is to think of Huckleberry Finn as a children's book, which it definitely is not. Even with the language scrubbed, you still have a protagonist abandoned (except for occasional beatings) by his alcoholic father, who turns up a ways into the story as a very unattractive corpse. The confusion arises because Huckleberry Finn is technically a sequel to Tom Sawyer, which is quite accessible to children. A comparative glance at a random page from each makes the difference obvious.

One could speculate what the author himself would think of this. To that end, one may consider the following letter written by Twain to an acquaintance who had taken on the burden of editing a piece that Twain had written:

The time-honored etiquette of the situationnew to you by reason of inexperienceis this: an author's MS. is not open to any editor's uninvited emendations. It must be accepted as it stands, or it must be declined; there is no middle course. Any alteration of it—even to a word—closes the incident, & that author & that editor can have no further literary dealings with each other. It was your right to say that the Introduction was not satisfactory to you, but it was not within your rights to contribute your pencil's assistance toward making it satisfactory. Therefore, even if you now wished to use my MS. in its original form, untouched, I could not permit it. Nor in any form, of course. I shall be glad to have the original when convenient, but there is no hurry. When you return will answer quite well. If you have any copies of it—either amended or un-amended—please destroy them, lest they fall into careless hands & get into print. Indeed I would not have that happen for anything in the world.

Mark Twain and I, at least, have an understanding. Neither of us is going to edit the other's work.

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