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Whitewashing Huck Finn, History

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | JANUARY 17, 2011 7:10 AM

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Young Huck Finn is in a peck of trouble again.

This year, as every year in Mr. Frese’s advanced-placement English class at West High, he floats down the river with an escaped slave in search of freedom. But this year is slightly different: a new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn removes the crusty language of the antebellum South that the novel so deftly satirized.

“Injun Joe” becomes “Indian Joe”, and that shiny new copy of Huck Finn lying on the shelves contains no mention of the N-word (originally recited 219 times), replacing it with the less-offensive “slave.”

This new, bowdlerized edition evades some of the harsh criticism levied at the text from book banners nationwide, but it also does both Mark Twain and his readers a grave disservice. Censorship of older works in accordance with modern mores obscures cultural truth, damaging the most resonant aspect of American history: the art it inspires.

Were there a fully deliberated rationale for removal of material from the classroom, such as a danger to minority communities, the argument might be different (although outright banning of books is never acceptable); however, to excise slurs in a work that seeks to puncture insidious racism and antebellum nostalgia is to defang Twain himself.

Fortunately, local high schools have taken this into consideration.

Nate Frese, a language-arts teacher at West High, has taught Huck Finn in his advanced-placement English classes for years. He told the DI Editorial Board that the novel is one of the first texts for literary analysis. He doesn’t plan on teaching the new, censored version to his students in upcoming years.

“Given the maturity level of the constituents, it’s a disservice to muzzle Twain or the subject of race in the book,” Frese wrote via e-mail.

He reassured us that the novel is taught to a mature audience and that the class extensively analyzes the novel’s themes and language.

When teaching the novel, Frese uses Harvard law Professor Randall Kennedy’s approach to offensive language and racial epithets. Furthermore, he looks at the historical context of the word and possible explanations on why Twain decided to use the word with such abandon.

“It’s important to meet such ‘controversy’ head on with a level head and an analytical eye, even if it is painful,” Frese wrote. “Letting the text operate solely as an emotional trigger can lead to problems.”

Iowa City has a dear tradition of fighting censorship, celebrated yearly in the Iowa City Public Library’s Banned Books Week; as a UNESCO World Literature city, we are uniquely suited to take a stance for freedom of expression, no matter how unsavory some may find the expressed material.

Jason Paulios, an adult fiction selector at the Iowa City Public Library, verified that the original copy of Huck Finn is still on the shelves at the library.

“We won’t change it,” he said.

Both Paulios and Frese acknowledged that the new, censored version of the novel may be a good introduction for elementary- and middle-school students, until they mature and are able to understand and discuss such sensitive topics. But any individual who can appreciate the scathing social commentary of Huck Finn, aimed at both the setting of the novel and the time in which Twain was writing, has the ability to understand the reason the author invoked ethnic stereotypes and vitriol. “Think of the children” is an uncompelling argument for the restriction of social commentary.

Frese and Paulios are not the only champions rejecting a sanitized classic. Teachers, librarians, and academics of all stripes rightly oppose the new edition, because they understand the implications of a sterile literary sphere.

To censor Huckleberry Finn is to hide the truth of American history. This truth may be unpalatable, but the world we live in demands an honest look at American history.


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