Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Adventure classics -- When censorship makes sense

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

by Mark Twain


To think I once believed censorship was a bad thing. That was before I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, one of the greatest American novels, and realized I really hated the language. Well, not all the language. Just one word. You know the one I mean.

Try listening to an audio version as I did, when the repetition on almost every page, sometimes multiple repetitions per page, is like being hit over the head to understand how it maims the story in ways its creator, Mark Twain, never envisioned.

The text contains the most offensive slur in the English language 218 times, as well as one instance in the table of contents. That’s according Alan Gribben, editor of the NewSouth Books version, which censors it gently by substituting for the n-word, the word “slave.”

“Apologists quite validly encourage readers to intuit the irony behind Huck’s ignorance and to focus instead on Twain’s larger satiric goals,” Gribben writes in his introduction, ending with the argument of African-American poet Langston Hughes for eliminating the n-word from literature, whether occurring “ironically or seriously, of necessity for the sake of realism, or impishly for the sake of comedy, it doesn’t matter.”

(I will plead for an exception to this censorship, in the limited use by African-American writers themselves in historic contexts such as Olivia Butler’s Kindred and Toni Morrison’s Beloved, options Hughes could only hope for when writing in the early twentieth century.)

Twain originally intended the book to be published as a companion to his first boy’s adventure novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, opening Huckleberry Finn’s book with a reference to the earlier story. Tom’s book ends with the discovery of a treasure that makes both him and his sidekick Huck rich beyond their wildest dreams, and subjects Huck to what he finds to be an intolerable loss of freedom.

An elderly widow Huck helped rescue in the first book, “took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me,” Huck explains to his readers. “But it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn’t stand it no longer, I lit out.”

After multiple unsuccessful attempts to escape civilization, Huck lights on a stratagem that would have pleased even his ever-romanticizing friend Tom¾ he fakes his own death. While hiding from those searching for his corpse, he chances on another fugitive, the escaped slave Jim. In the meeting, Huck understands at once his own loneliness and the relief of meeting the one person he knows will not betray him.

Jim has run away for fear of being sold away from his wife and children. Over the remainder of the novel, he and Huck develop a mutual dependence that grows as deep and wide as the river they voyage on. And to Huck, the child of an abusive drunk, Jim becomes a pattern of what a father should be.

Nearly ten years were to pass between publication of Tom’s story and Huck’s. In the passage, Huck’s story became the deeper one, the story whose “soul has grown deep” as the ancient, dusky Mississippi River.

Yes, the original text of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is widely available. But unless you truly enjoy hitting yourself over the head, it’s worthwhile seeking out the NewSouth edition, available at

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics continues a September of young protagonists with Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.)

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