If Michiko Kakutani's column in today's New York Times is not the best read and most emailed piece in the paper, then not enough people are paying attention. Her take on the announcement that a new edition of Huckleberry Finn is being released with more than 200 uses of the 'n' word from the original text--yes, it is "nigger," and I will use it here just this once--being summarily changed to "slave" is exquisitely reasoned and beautifully supported with historical parallels. (There is the absurdity, for instance, of a British theater group changing the title of The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 2002 to The Bellringer of Notre Dame for a new production of the play.)
The editor of the new Huckleberry Finn edition, Alan Gribben, is a professor of English at Auburn University in Alabama. His explanation for changing the word in each usage--and thus bowdlerizing what we can all agree is one of the most consequential works of fiction in the American literary canon--is to make the book more appealing to high school and college teachers who might otherwise excise it from their curricula. It is, he argues, "a racial slur that never seems to lose its vitriol," and thus, with one simple stroke of a search-and-replace key, voila, Mark Twain is rendered suitable for modern eyes to read without fear of being unduly bruised by the sunlight.
Instead of explaining to students that the reprehensible word has a history that goes back four hundred years, and that the slur as used in the novel was totally in character for the time and the place and the people being profiled, teachers using this sanitized text are now free to ignore unpleasantness altogether. Let's hope they will be few and far between. If leery instructors need a little help along these lines--it is called teaching, after all--they should take a look at The 'N' Word, (Houghton Mifflin, 2007) by Washington Post cultural columnist Jabari Asim. We don't accomplish a whole lot by denying the past. And we certainly don't introduce literature to young readers by grooming it to suit our delicate sensibilities.
Kudos to Ms. Kakutani for making the point so eloquently. Meanwhile, Mr. Gribben's defense of the action (which also changes "injun" to "Indian")--and that of his publisher, NewSouth Books--can be read at this link.