Whitewashing Offense

by Robert Pondiscio
January 5th, 2011

“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” — Ernest Hemingway.

Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an undeniable classic, one of the most important and influential works of American literature, notes Publisher’s Weekly.

“Yet, for decades, it has been disappearing from grade school curricula across the country, relegated to optional reading lists, or banned outright, appearing again and again on lists of the nation’s most challenged books, and all for its repeated use of a single, singularly offensive word: ‘nigger.’”

A new edition is in the works which will combine Huckleberry Finn in a single volume with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.  But more than 200 uses of the “n” word will be changed to “slave.”  The word “injun” (as in “Injun Joe”) will give way to “indian.” 

“This is not an effort to render Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn colorblind,” said Auburn University English professor Alan Gribben, the Twain scholar behind the new edition. “Race matters in these books. It’s a matter of how you express that in the 21st century.”  He tells Publishers Weekly he came up with the idea after a series of public readings of Tom Sawyer.

“After a number of talks, I was sought out by local teachers, and to a person they said we would love to teach this novel, and Huckleberry Finn, but we feel we can’t do it anymore. In the new classroom, it’s really not acceptable.” Gribben became determined to offer an alternative for grade school classrooms and “general readers” that would allow them to appreciate and enjoy all the book has to offer. “For a single word to form a barrier, it seems such an unnecessary state of affairs,” he said.

Purists are predictably crying censorship and political correctness, but Gribben makes pragmatic sense.   While I’m deeply sympathetic to the argument that protecting children from history is not a good idea, if one word is the difference between kids reading Twain’s influential classic or not, then “sanitizing” the text for contemporary sensibilities seems not too high a price to pay.  The book and its powerful themes speak for themselves and have lost none of their power or relevance.  ”A classic is a book which people praise and don’t read,” Twain famously quipped.  Huckleberry Finn deserves to be still widely read.

That said, there is no guarantee a sanitized Huckleberry Finn find its way onto more reading lists.  “I’m not offended by anything in ‘Huck Finn,’” says teacher Elizabeth Absher.  “I am a big fan of Mark Twain, and I hear a lot worse in the hallway in front of my class,” she tells the New York Times

The paper notes that Ms. Abner teaches Twain short stories in her English classes at South Mountain High School in Arizona.  But she doesn’t teach Huckleberry Finn.  It has nothing to do with offense racial epithets. 

She says it’s “too long.”


  1. [...] Whitewashing Offense « The Core Knowledge Blog. [...]

    Pingback by Whitewashing Offense « The Core Knowledge Blog « Parents 4 democratic Schools — January 5, 2011 @ 11:06 am

  2. Changing the “n” word to “slave” distorts the meaning and language. Huck frequently refers to Jim as a “n” but does not regard him as a “slave.” What happens to the sentence at the end of chapter 14?

    “I see it warn’t no use wasting words–you can’t learn a slave to argue. So I quit.”

    That’s absurd. Huck isn’t commenting on Jim’s slave status; he’s commenting on his race. It’s a racist comment, yes, but it’s blatantly ironic; the reader sees that Huck’s reasoning is no better than Jim’s, and that Jim has done better than Huck in this discussion. And it is in the very next chapter that Huck is humbled–when he plays a trick on Jim and realizes how mean it was.

    The “n” word was part of Southern whites’ language at the time and helps to convey the very attitudes that Twain deplored. Ridiculous to change it. What, will publishers put out a new edition of Romeo and Juliet, with all instances of “lady” changed to “woman”?

    I taught Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to fifth graders, many of whom were African American. I explained why the “n” word was there; we agreed that when we came to it, we’d just say “n.” That worked out well. They read the entire book and had thoughtful discussions.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — January 5, 2011 @ 11:21 am

  3. I don’t dispute your point, Diana, but doesn’t the very fact that you’re so uncomfortable as a teacher, writer and scholar to use the word — even in the context of discussing a text — support Gribben’s point? Might you be accused of saying it’s OK for you as a teacher to make the decision to alter Twain’s text (“we’ll just say “n”) but not for Gribben?

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — January 5, 2011 @ 11:27 am

  4. Robert,

    That’s a good point–but there’s a big difference between avoiding the word in one’s speech and altering the text of this book.

    Change the word, and you change the meaning of the text. You also gloss over some of Twain’s own criticism of racism.

    I agree that saying “n” is a compromise–but the students still read the text as it is and understand why the word is there.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — January 5, 2011 @ 11:52 am

  5. And to be clear, I don’t disagree with you. But I don’t think the value of the book — and the value of its being read — is so damaged by the bowdlerization as to render its meanings and themes meaningless. I don’t have to like it or agree with it to see it as price worth paying to restore the book to its place on schools must-read list (if in fact that’s what this will accomplish).

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — January 5, 2011 @ 11:56 am

  6. Robert,

    Again, I see your point–but first of all, I believe it does distort the text considerably, and second, someone is bound to take offense at such frequent use of the word “slave” as an epithet. You just can’t get around the fact that the book deals with difficult and painful subjects.

    I already gave an example of a place where “slave” would distort the meaning. Here’s another, from chapter 32. I have made the replacements.

    “And behind the woman comes a little slave girl and two little slave boys, without anything on but tow-linen shirts, and they hung onto their mother’s gown, and peeped out from behind her at me, bashful, the way they always do. And here comes the white woman running from the house, about forty-five or fifty year old, bareheaded, and her spinning-stick in her hand; and behind her comes her little white children, acting the same way the little slaves was doing.”

    Comment by Diana Senechal — January 5, 2011 @ 12:22 pm

  7. The question, to be specific, is not whether it distorts the text. Clearly it does. The question is whether it distorts the text, as a whole, fatally. I say no, it does not.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — January 5, 2011 @ 12:25 pm

  8. Well, there are two issues. First, does it distort the text fatally? Second, must a distortion be fatal to be wrong?

    I would say it does distort the text fatally. Twain was conveying how people spoke at the time. They simply would not have used the word “slave” in those contexts. It doesn’t work; it doesn’t make sense.

    Second, even if the distortion is not fatal, it is bad enough. There is no justification for tinkering with literature without the author’s consent. An editor may correct obvious errors, break a long text into paragraphs, interpret blurred passages in the manuscript, etc. But change a word to appease people? To make the work less hurtful? That caters to a view that literature should meet our needs.

    In The Language Police, Diane Ravitch writes, “Great literature does not comfort us; it does not make us feel better about ourselves. It is not written to enhance our self-esteem or to make us feel that we are ‘included’ in the story. It takes us into its own world and creates its own reality. It shakes us up; it makes us think. Sometimes it makes us cry.”

    Someone might argue: “Well, it’s easy enough for a white person to say the word should be kept in.” But is it really? Isn’t it uncomfortable for a white person to read about white people using the word without a qualm? And isn’t that discomfort important?

    Comment by Diana Senechal — January 5, 2011 @ 1:03 pm

  9. So to be absolutely clear then, Diana, you are saying that Huckleberry Finn without the words “nigger and “injun” is no longer worth reading and not worth teaching.” Correct? If so, we can agree to disagree.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — January 5, 2011 @ 1:10 pm

  10. That isn’t quite my point. If there were no other choice, I’d rather have students read the doctored text than not read it at all.

    But since I am not faced with that choice, I reject it. I would look for a school that taught original versions of literature. And I see no reason why anyone should have to accept this doctoring just because it has been done.

    And schools that use the doctored version should be obligated to tell students which words have been changed and why. Otherwise students will read literature and have no idea that the author had written it differently.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — January 5, 2011 @ 1:29 pm

  11. It might be a poor choice, but it seems to be a choice that many schools and teachers are making if Gribben and the annual list of challenged books is to be believed. You raise an interesting point about disclosure. If I were teaching the altered text, I could see making an interesting lesson/discussion over the language, Twain’s intent, and the validity of the censorship.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — January 5, 2011 @ 1:33 pm

  12. What this debate highlights, unfortunately for various reasons, is that the un-censored version of Huckleberry Finn may now only be suitable for college level education.

    Since High School students are still children then censorship has a place, though not without considerable and ongoing debate. But censorship really has little to do with the text at hand and everything to do with us as people living in the contemporary societies we create. In terms of the “n” word in Huckleberry Finn, I would say a better high school level publishing compromise would be to use “n—–” rather than “slave.”

    We can debate if our society today is better or worse than in Twain’s day, but it is what it is. Maybe homeschoolers have it better; they can generally have more intimate one-on-one discussions with their students regarding original texts without all of the fears and concerns that produce common public school pressures. Though I do not necessarily demean those fears or pressures.

    Comment by Tucker — January 5, 2011 @ 2:36 pm

  13. Take a deep breath, kids.

    I don’t think most of you want to hear what I think about “PC”; but think about this: Twain wrote “stories” not poetry. Good stories need to be read as though we were listening to the author.

    The Bible has been published as many translations to convey what some would have us gather from the original; and that has changed over the years.

    Just what would a young boy call a “nigger” today? … negro went out a couple generations ago; African-American? …black? …? I just don’t remember that they’ve been called slaves in my lifetime and that includes when “nigger” was common.

    Injun? Give me a break. They’re not even indians anymore. How ’bout adding a dozen pages and calling him “Native-American Joe”?

    Comment by ewaldoh — January 5, 2011 @ 2:54 pm

  14. “Take a deep breath, kids.” ???

    ha! I see through you old wise one.

    Comment by Tucker — January 5, 2011 @ 3:16 pm

  15. We read a sanitized copy of “Huck Finn” back in my high school English class. Rather than the full word, it had n—-. The teacher explained that the word was an artifact of the author’s time and we didn’t need to see it repeated over and over. I think that is actually the best solution because it doesn’t change Twain’s writing.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — January 5, 2011 @ 3:16 pm

  16. If the change is made as suggested, I agree with Diana that the book needs to include a disclosure of the changes made and why.

    But I agree with Tucker and Crimson Wife – “n—-” would be my compromise of choice. We rarely change Shakespeare (who bites thumbs at people any more?), Chaucer (how many high school students know what gaps in teeth used to mean?) or other writers who worked in a different period to reflect the language/idioms of today. Yes, there is a difference in those examples and Huck Finn regarding the sensitivity of the issue. But we all know about slippery slopes…

    [Note: Look at what I remembered from high school literature! Likely because it was language so different from my everyday experience...]

    Comment by Anne — January 5, 2011 @ 4:43 pm

  17. Ironically, the novel Huckleberry Finn was controversial from the beginning, but not for its typecasting of Jim ‘the nigger … that used to belong to old Miss Watson’ and of Injun Joe, the terrible, vengeful Indian – but rather for the reprehensible acts of its young characters. Twain writes:

    “When Huck appeared, the public library of Concord flung him out indignantly, partly because he was a liar, and partly because after deep meditation and careful deliberation he decided that if he’d got to betray Jim or go to hell, he would rather go to hell – which was profanity, and those Concord purists couldn’t stand it.”

    Then there’s an episode in 1905 when the Brooklyn Public Library officials sought to dispose of the book at the request of a ‘young woman, superintendent of children’s department, [who] insisted that Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer be removed from the children’s room because of their “coarseness, deceitfulness and mischievous practices.”


    When asked by the Brooklyn head librarian to defend his book, the author responded with the following letter:

    “Dear Sir:

    I am greatly troubled by what you say. I wrote Tom Sawyer & Huck Finn for adults exclusively, & it always distressed me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean. I know this by my own experience, & to this day I cherish an unappeased bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and ever draw a clean sweet breath again on this side of the grave. Ask that young lady – she will tell you so.

    “Most honestly do I wish I could say a softening word or two in defence of Huck’s character, since you wish it, but really in my opinion it is no better than God’s (in the Ahab & 97 others), & the rest of the sacred brotherhood.

    “If there is one Unexpurgated in the Children’s Department, won’t you please help that young woman remove Tom & Huck from that questionable companionship?

    Sincerely yours,
    S. L. Clemens”

    In time, we have become less offended by the mischievous boys in Twain’s books – but that is only because their world is now distanced in time and space, and their misdemeanors now look patriarchal and stylized. We would still balk today at a children book with the subject of contemporaneous students stealing and getting away with it, running away from public school talking months long idyllic trolls through the wilderness, and drinking water from rivers and eating tree bark. Or maybe we’d accept it as an eccentricity, but Twain seriously believed in the educational benefits of this free roaming life style. For him, the school of life is preferable to the one with classrooms.

    While some people say that an education is what remains after everything learned has been forgotten, Twain had a simpler version: “Education consists mainly in what we have unlearned”. And he had something to say about the entire organization: “In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then He made school boards.”

    In what regards Mark Twain’s views on the depiction of Indians in literature, he wrote an 1870 essay with his usual verve, ‘The Noble Red Man’, where he’s taking a strong view on novels like those of Fenimore Cooper that present the Indian as a Noble Savage.

    “In books he is tall and tawny, muscular, straight and of kingly presence; he has a beaked nose and an eagle eye. ” [...]

    “He is noble. He is true and loyal; not even imminent death can shake his peerless faithfulness. His heart is a well-spring of truth, and of generous impulses, and of knightly magnanimity. With him, gratitude is religion; do him a kindness, and at the end of a lifetime he has not forgotten it. Eat of his bread, or offer him yours, and the bond of hospitality is sealed–a bond which is forever inviolable with him.

    “He loves the dark-eyed daughter of the forest, the dusky maiden of faultless form and rich attire, the pride of the tribe, the all-beautiful. He talks to her in a low voice, at twilight of his deeds on the war-path and in the chase, and of the grand achievements of his ancestors; and she listens with downcast eyes, “while a richer hue mantles her dusky cheek.”

    “Such is the Noble Red Man in print. But out on the plains and in the mountains, not being on dress parade, not being gotten up to see company, he is under no obligation to be other than his natural self, and therefore:

    “He is little, and scrawny, and black, and dirty; and, judged by even the most charitable of our canons of human excellence, is thoroughly pitiful and contemptible. There is nothing in his eye or his nose that is attractive, and if there is anything in his hair that–however, that is a feature which will not bear too close examination… He wears no bracelets on his arms or ankles; his hunting suit is gallantly fringed, but not intentionally; when he does not wear his disgusting rabbit-skin robe, his hunting suit consists wholly of the half of a horse blanket brought over in the Pinta or the Mayflower, and frayed out and fringed by inveterate use. He is not rich enough to possess a belt; he never owned a moccasin or wore a shoe in his life; and truly he is nothing but a poor, filthy, naked scurvy vagabond, whom to exterminate were a charity to the Creator’s worthier insects and reptiles which he oppresses. Still, when contact with the white man has given to the Noble Son of the Forest certain cloudy impressions of civilization, and aspirations after a nobler life, he presently appears in public with one boot on and one shoe–shirtless, and wearing ripped and patched and buttonless pants which he holds up with his left hand–his execrable rabbit-skin robe flowing from his shoulder–an old hoop-skirt on, outside of it–a necklace of battered sardine-boxes and oyster-cans reposing on his bare breast–a venerable flint-lock musket in his right hand–a weather-beaten stove-pipe hat on, canted “gallusly” to starboard, and the lid off and hanging by a thread or two; and when he thus appears, and waits patiently around a saloon till he gets a chance to strike a “swell” attitude before a looking-glass, he is a good, fair, desirable subject for extermination if ever there was one. [...]“

    At that time, literature depiction of natives had no third alternative between the idealized one of Fenimore Cooper and the gaunt one of Mark Twain. The entire Noble Man piece can be found at http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/hns/indians/redman.html – it is a well written diatribe, and one of the most offensively contemptuous pieces ever written. I’d like to believe that his extermination is one of behavior and of pants kept up with the left hand, and not of actual persons, but I am not too sure.

    Twain is as controversial now as he was in his time, and we can enjoy some of his writings while being careful with others, but the last thing we should do is to falsify him especially for young readers. So let Injun Joe be Injun – the word is so rarely used that it’s long lost its pejorative bite. I doubt that this word is read in many other places today than in Tom Sawyer. As for the n. word, it can be read like that in class, if ‘nigger’ is too much, but the text itself should be left as it is. His contemporaries have managed not to edit his more blasphemous passages, and neither should we.

    Comment by andrei radulescu-banu — January 5, 2011 @ 7:03 pm

  18. Wow. That was excellent, Andrei. I hope you turn it into a blog or article.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — January 5, 2011 @ 7:48 pm

  19. I second that, Andrei. Bravo. A first-rate read.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — January 5, 2011 @ 7:51 pm

  20. Interesting comment on the letter to the librarian.

    My copy has the following preface:
    “Most of the adventures recorded in this book really occurred; one or two were experiences of my own the rest those of boys who were schoolmates of mine; Huck Finn is drawn from life; Tom Sawyer also, but not from an individual–he is a combination of the characteristics of three boys whom I knew, and therefore belongs to the composite order of architecture.

    The odd superstitions touched upon were all prevalent among children and slaves in the West at the period of this story–that is to say, thirty or forty years ago.

    Although my book is intended mainly for the entertainment of boys and girls, I hope it will mot be shunned by men and women on that account, for part of my plan has been to try to pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves, and of how they felt and thought and talked, and what queer enterprises they sometimes engaged in.”

    So, folks, there’s two stories; you takes your pick!

    Comment by ewaldoh — January 5, 2011 @ 8:19 pm

  21. The only real consideration in whether this change should be made is the impact on actual African-American student in the actual classrooms in which the book is read. Ask them how they would feel about their white teachers and classmates saying the word “n—” over and over and over again.

    Comment by Hainish — January 5, 2011 @ 8:48 pm

  22. Twain was a master of bitter sarcasm. In the letter to the librarian quoted above, Twain is ripping him to shreds. Of course Twain wrote the book to be read by children!

    I’ve taught Tom Sawyer (unabridged) for over 10 years. My young African-American students totally get it – that the “n word” is offensive, but that is the way Twain wrote it at that time. They are not bothered by reading the word in class or by discussions of how language has changed. Many of my white students have never even heard the word. And that is progress!

    Comment by 5th grade teacher — January 5, 2011 @ 11:51 pm

  23. On a somewhat related note: The WaPo has a piece on the name of Washington’s NFL team name.


    Comment by Paul Hoss — January 6, 2011 @ 10:46 am

  24. A fun argument — thank you all for your posts. I’d like to add two things:

    1) Although I am irritated at Diana for swiping the Ravitch quotation (#8) before I got to submit it, I can be a big enough person to support her essential point in #10: that it is a false dilemma to say that we must teach the doctored text or no text. That said, one of the key elements of teaching literature, to me, is the framing of it. She (last paragraph of #2) and other teachers were clear in framing this text; it is the lack of clear expectations that can cause many a reasonable struggle to whirl out of control, and the presence of clear expectations that indicates (to me) the presence of a professional educator.

    2) I can see some benefit in teaching it to grade schoolers (as cited by Robert from Publisher’s Weekly) but I think it is infinitely more valuable to preserve for the high school set. The use of irony, the development of the unreliable narrator, the challenge of the ending, even the historical context — all this sophistication is accessible by a teenager in a more robust way. Still, I’m glad Diana had success with her fifth graders, and know that others can too, and I wouldn’t ban it at all.

    3) The excellent PBS documentary “Born To Trouble” tells the story of a Huck censorship fight in Arizona in the late ’90s. The African-American girl and her mother who lead the protest are worth listening to. One of the key elements there is the fact that the “alternate text” available to those who opted out of this novel was a Dickens. Not the same. One thing to say for Gribben’s book: it would be the ideal opt-out selection…but to propose it over the original for all is selling the students and the literature short. (Another key element mentioned there: kids were reading it aloud apparently without context, and relishing the taboo word’s “sacral power” [to cite NPR commentator Geoffrey Nunberg], at the expense of the African-American students’ discomfort. Inappropriately managed by the teachers in that case, assuming that that description is true. Doesn’t mean that it HAS to happen that way, though.)

    Thanks for the great discussion!

    Comment by Carl Rosin — January 8, 2011 @ 1:55 pm

  25. Uh, three things.

    Comment by Carl Rosin — January 8, 2011 @ 1:58 pm

  26. [...] Posts Never the Twain Shall Meet In Praise of The Concord Review Whitewashing Offense Who You Gonna Call? Separation of Church and [...]

    Pingback by Never the Twain Shall Meet « The Core Knowledge Blog — January 10, 2011 @ 2:33 pm

  27. In the beginning notes of Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”, in explaining her use of native dialects throughout the work, she quotes one of Henrietta’s relatives thus: “If you pretty up how people spoke and change the things they said, that’s dishonest. It’s taking away their lives, their experiences, and their selves.”

    I agree.

    Comment by Cindy — January 17, 2011 @ 4:48 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

While the Core Knowledge Foundation wants to hear from readers of this blog, it reserves the right to not post comments online and to edit them for content and appropriateness.