Friday, January 14, 2011

Seriously…Revising Huckleberry Finn?

The following is a guest post by Linda Keesing, the Media Specialist at New Milford High School.  Below are her thoughts on the recent revisions to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Feel free to comment below and she will respond.  Linda can be contacted directly at

In February, there will be a new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, minus any appearance of the "N" word.  Note that the new book is called a new edition, not a revision.  This news has caught the attention of people all over the world.

On January, 6, 2011, New York Times book reviewer, Michiko Kakutani wrote:  "Authors’ original texts should be sacrosanct intellectual property, whether a book is a classic or not...Efforts to sanitize classic literature have a long, undistinguished history...Whether it comes from conservatives or liberals, there is a patronizing Big Brother aspect to these literary fumigations. We, the censors, need to protect you, the naïve, delicate reader. We, the editors, need to police writers (even those from other eras), who might have penned something that might be offensive to someone sometime." 

Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a treasured classic that many students read in high school, as they have for generations.  It is also one of the most frequently banned books in the United States.  Many people object to its dealing with racism and the use of the "N" word.

Please know that I am appalled by the use of the derogatory "N" word by anyone alive today (or at all during my lifetime)!  However, we are talking about a classic work of literature that was published in 1885 in the United States, a very different time in history.  During the time that Huck and Jim rafted on the Mississippi, use of the "N" word was common and accepted.

First of all, reading literature provides readers a chance to think about, discuss, and even challenge ideas presented in the text.  Literature is often provocative, and I believe it is a positive event when readers are engaged in the art and struggle of finding meaning in it.  For our 21st century students to appreciate with sensitivity how times have changed, and how the connotation of the "N" word has changed through the reading of this classic book, means that they have engaged in a teachable moment.  With insight, they can realize the context of the times - both then and now.  

As our world gets smaller, and people of different cultures need to work and live together, don't we need to examine the very perceptions and misperceptions that we have about each other that may interfere with the reality of needing to get along?  Certainly the "N" word is offensive in today's world.  Can we parlay a discussion about the outrage that use of that word sparks into a broader discussion about other words and images that are used today that are hurtful and offensive?  Can we learn something that will inform our interactions and behavior for the better?


  1. I don't think it is a surprise that this edition comes out of the intellectual climate at Auburn University - which has been a national leader in denying reality these past few years - nor is it a surprise that it will be published in the same year that the leadership of the US House of Representatives whitewashed "slavery" from their reading of the US Constitution.

    We do not "edit" words to protect students, but to protect ourselves from the uncomfortable act of looking at ourselves as members of a society.

    As "The Daily Show" noted, reading that word SHOULD be uncomfortable, and we will have no way of dealing with our future if we continue to pretend that our past was somehow perfect.

    - Ira Socol

  2. Absolutely! Popular wisdom has it that one can't really understand someone else until he/she tries to walk in the someone else's shoes. That would include the difficult parts that someone has experienced. Others (we?) may have contributed to those difficult parts. If we fail to examine the troubling aspects of our history (or our present day), we will not achieve full understanding. Thanks for your post!

  3. Great post. We should also recognize that Twain was speaking AGAINST racism in his story of the friendship between a runaway slave and a runaway white boy.

  4. The last time you heard of me and Tom was in that book Sam Clemens wrote telling of when Jim and me flowed down the Mississippi and met up with the King and the Duke. Then Jim got captured and Tom and I had to set him free. Of course, Jim was already a freed man; Tom just neglected to mention that fact during the planning stage.

    Well, we were twelve years of age when Sam wrote about that. Now Tom and I are a mite older and a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then. One thing is that we’re a little bit smarter than we were. We’ve been reading a lot of books and our English has improved a little. But it wasn’t just books. Both Tom and I have traveled many miles, not always together, and travel broadens one’s outlook on life.

    We went from being children to men before we knew it. Tom and Becky Thatcher never got married like everyone expected. In the summer of '54, Becky ran off with a drummer. I think he sold women’s corsets, but of that, I am not certain. We haven’t heard from her since. Judge Thatcher and Tom’s Aunt Polly both took sick and died the next year when the Cholera epidemic passed through town. Two years after that, the widow Douglas died; the doctor said it was heart failure.