Huck Finn and the n-word debated on BBC
The BBC World Service invited me onto its "Have Your Say" show yesterday, for a discussion of the new edition of "Huckleberry Finn" that omits the "n-word." (Apparently the World Service doesn't go in for such self-censorship, because the epithet is included in the show's website description.) The show, a mash-up of two issues, had a daunting title -- "Future of liberals in Pakistan and must today's values be applied to all literature?" -- so if you want to listen to the podcast, be forewarned that Twain doesn't come up until the second half-hour.
Listeners got an overview of the controversy over the kinder, gentler NewSouth edition, but because the segment was just a half-hour long, there wasn't much room for give and take. A professor argued for preserving the purity of the work, noting that exorcising the offensive word steals power from Mark Twain's prose. A NewSouth representative agreed, but noted that many American children do not get to read the book now because teachers are leery of bringing it into the classroom. The new edition uses the word "slave" in place of the racial epithet.
I noted the extraordinary racial freight that the "n-word" carries, and that it is only rarely used in the Baltimore Sun. The new "children's" edition may get more kids to read Twain -- a good thing. Still, there's no doubt that "slave" -- a word used by abolitionists such as Twain's one-time neighbor Harriet Beecher Stowe -- carries an altogether different meaning than the epithet. And that weakens Twain's power.