Most of your post seemed to be focused on adult readers, college students, and generally those who are supposed to be mature enough to handle the N-word when they see it in literature. Granted. I think you’re right — in a college setting, everyone’s supposed to be at a level where discussions about race and its pejorative notations can take place.

    In reality, though, it’s not true. Sometimes even college isn’t a safe place for these discussions. As an undergrad writing major, I asked an innocent question about a classmate’s story, which was about a bi-racial young woman. I asked because as a white male, I’d never had the experience described in the story, and I was curious to know more about it. Instead of fostering discussion, my question was met with a torrent of verbal abuse from a black student who was deeply offended by my question. Sometimes, even well-intentioned college students are too passionate about issues of race to have a healthy discussion.

    That’s not to say I disagree with you, because I don’t. College is supposed to be where we learn and expand our horizons by listening to other perspectives. We should have discussions related to race there, because college should provide an environment that facilitates exploring experiences that are otherwise unfamiliar to us.

    That said, there’s something your post didn’t really touch on. I’m sure you’ve probably read this in your examination of the topic of Mark Twain’s “censorship,” but there is one niche of student where this change can help: high school students. I read a lot of literature in high school that I didn’t fully appreciate because I was, you know, a young high school student who lacked the capacity to truly appreciate great literature. But the N-word is such a hot-button issue today even among adults that some schools, unfortunately, are left with two options: teaching Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and infuriating parents who don’t believe a high school text with the N-word should be taught to their kids, or not teaching it at all.

    Like any writer, I believe a writer’s work should be read as published and as intended. In college, that should always be the case.

    But in high school, curriculum is influenced to a greater degree by the reactions of parents. If making this one change allows more high schools to teach Mark Twain without the fiery distraction that is the N-word, then I think I’m okay with that. Because the alternative is having a generation of high school students who haven’t read it at all. (Whether they’ll appreciate having read it in high school is, of course, another question entirely.)

    Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer will always be available in their original form, and professors should definitely use them. But I see this slightly changed edition as a viable alternative to a text that divides the academic community that determines the content taught in our high schools.

    I know high school wasn’t the point of your post, but I do believe it’s a point worth raising in the context of this discussion.

  2. Hmmmm. Good points. You’re right, I was intending this more as a college discussion. Especially given Gribben is a college professor. So far as high school . . . I get what you’re saying. On the other hand, Twain wrote the novels “for adults exclusively.” Which is not to say that I think that what is written for an adult audience shouldn’t be taught in high school, but then again, work with mature themes demand mature treatments. Perhaps reading them is what matures students, which prompts a chicken-egg sort of situation, but on the other hand . . . discussing race can lead to many ideas, topics, and thoughts that must be handled with sensitivity. I’m not sure I’d endeavor to fully discuss race with a twelve year old.

    Truthfully, in a high school setting, my inclination would be to introduce students to the sorts of controversies reading the book has raised, and I would require that the book be taught only two high school juniors and seniors. I’m not sure Huck Finn should be taught to kids. I’m not sure anyone under 14 would really understand the language of the book, much less its themes. I know I didn’t, at that age.

    As for having a generation of high school students who haven’t read it at all, well, that was very much Twain’s intention, it seems.

    You mention parents, too, and I think that’s a big point; I doubt students were upset by it. Honestly, infuriate enough parents and then ban the book and you’re basically guaranteeing students are going to flock to he thing, right? I read someone say that about “Hey Jude,” earlier. That he’d been in a car and the driver had shut it off midway through because after that it was just noise, and the first thing the writer did was listen to the full version of it.

    One idea (unrelated to your post, Jeffrey) that I forgot to circle back around to, was Gribben’s “a different kind of audience than a professor usually encounters; what we always called ‘the general reader.’” Which I’m going to take an opportunity to note know seems to me to smack of elitism and condescension of the worst possible sort, and may be emblematic of the perspective from which Gribben is approaching the matter.

  3. DPS

    Geesus christ, Will, did you overthink this to almost criminal proportions.

    My 10-year-old daughter read it and commented to me, “Isn’t it sad that, even though they were friends, he still called him the ‘n-word’? Here they are, partners and equals, and it’s still okay for him to say that.”

    That was (damn-near verbatim) from a *child*.

    Mark Twain wasn’t stupid – he doesn’t need to have his works “fixed” for our PC-modern times.

    His inclusion of the word “nigger” wasn’t a reflection of his racism – it was a reflection of our times when the work was written.

    In my essays on the racism I’ve experienced, if anyone changed the word “kike” to something like “concentration camp victim” or some other stupid shit…well, you could probably power the entire planet with the energy I’d be generating from rolling over in my grave.

    It’s TRUTH. It’s class division of the time.

    And people seem to act like it was okay for us to hear/read the words back in the ’70s or ’80s (or whenever everyone went to school) but it now, somehow, *isn’t* in the ’10s? In my house, at least, that word wasn’t acceptable, so the inclusion of the word didn’t make me okay with using it.

    I think we’re underestimating our children. Or possibly under-raising them with anemic morals – if they’re so easily swayed by a word in a book by someone we’re told is great without judging that person on their own merits.

    It’s fucked up all the way around.

    Oops, sorry, I accidentally said “fucked”…please edit this to make my word appear as nothing more than “harmless” asterisks.

  4. DPS: I totally agree with you. On all counts. Reflection of times, class division, racism, etc. And it seems most people in such positions underestimate other people’s children, not to mention other children’s parents.

    I always tend to overthink things, sadly. I like to play like I’m intuitive about things, but I fear I tend to be analytical. Especially when it comes to communicating with other people.

    Which is funny, because I seem to communicate best when I stop thinking about other people and just sit quietly with the words. That’s when I can do some magic with them.

Comments are closed.