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Locals decry new Huckleberry Finn edits

BY GIBSON BERGLUND | JANUARY 17, 2011 7:10 AM

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After one publishing company decided to censor the classic American novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, local educators and literature enthusiasts said it’s an unnecessary move.

In fact, West High Principal Jerry Arganbright said his school would continue to use the old version of the book.

“We would not use the edited version,” he said. “I wouldn’t support using a sanitized version of a classic work.”

The Alabama publishing company NewSouth Books will soon release an edited version of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which every mention of the “N-word” has been replaced by the word “slave.” Though the new version is intended to make the frequently banned novel more accessible to high-school classrooms, many in the literary community have spoken out against altering the classic work of literature.

“I think it’s unethical tinkering,” said UI English Professor Bonnie Sunstein.

Those who criticize the new edition argue that Twain’s use of the “N-word” made a point about bigotry in his time, one that is lost when the language is changed.

“It illustrates in so many other ways how the culture thought at the time Mark Twain was writing,” Sunstein said. “He was using that word for a reason. It’s taking our current ideas of what’s acceptable in language and slapping them on someone else’s language.”

On NewSouth Books’ website, Alan Gribben, an English professor and Twain scholar at Auburn University, explains his reasons for editing the book. Excluding all the “N-words” is an effort to prevent what Gribben calls “pre-emptive censorship,” schools banning books because of content.

Though Arganbright said he wants to continue use of the original text at West High, he said the historical background and context of the novel must go along with reading the original work.

“With a racial slur being used that frequently, it’s important to have a discussion about it,” he said.
Paul Ingram, the book buyer for the Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St., said he read Huck Finn when he was 14.

Though Ingram said his parents told him the “N-word” was a “terrible” word, he said the book does not pose a threat.

“I don’t believe that reading Huck Finn has ever caused anyone to be more racist or use the ‘N-word’ more,” said Ingram, “I don’t think this [change] is necessary. I think a careful reading of the book is necessary.”

NewSouth is also releasing a revised version of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer as part of the same volume; it contains the “N-word” four times.

In addition to altering a classic, the censorship could potentially open the door to editing of other books, Ingram said.

“And if [others were altered], I think that would maybe be a serious problem,” he said.


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