« The Lord's pronouns | Main | The lawyer's accident »

Dr. Bowdler's heir

I take a little time out for a trip to London and return to find that some feckless pedagogue has castrated Huckleberry Finn.*

Professor Alan Gribben of Auburn University is the editor of a new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn coming out from NewSouth Books “in a single volume with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, that does away with the ‘n’ word (as well as the ‘in’ word, ‘Injun’) by replacing it with the word ‘slave.’ ”

Apparently many teachers would like to use Huck Finn in class but can’t because the word nigger is too taboo, too difficult to manage, too hot to handle.** So Professor Gribben comes to the rescue. In this he follows the path blazed by Dr. Thomas Bowdler, who excised all the racy passages from Shakespeare so that the works could be safely read by women and children, as a bonus giving us the useful word bowdlerize, for prudish editing.

One of the reasons that Huck Finn may be the American novel is that it goes straight at the issue of race that has troubled us since the Colonial era, that led to the great flaw in the original Constitution, that brought on the bloodshed of the Civil War, and that continues to trouble us to this day. One of the great moments in that novel is the point at which Huck recognizes, confronts, and rejects the casual racism in which he has been brought up.

Teaching Twain’s novel without that word, with all its historical and emotional baggage, is like talking about the Civil War as if it were merely a difference over which rights accrue to the national government and which to the states—the approach most commonly taken by people who want to deny the historical reality of the slavery issue as the central concern in the secession crisis and to prettify the Confederacy.

Teaching Huck Finn, even at the college level, is challenging, in part because of the explosive charge that taboo word carries. It is an ugly word, a hateful word, and I have heard it used for hateful purposes. But my belief that it should not be deleted from Huck Finn is more than an old English major’s purism about texts. The things that word stands for are central to the book, and if Huck can face them, so should we be able to.

Besides, if a taboo word cannot appear even in a classroom, subject to analysis and study, then we have granted it a power beyond our control, and that cannot be a good thing.


*Castrate is only partially hyperbolic. The verb has been in use as a synonym for expurgate since the seventeenth century.

**This will be the only explicit mention in this post of that word, which I do not use myself, and do not recommend for any white people to use casually. I use it here simply to make clear what the central issue is.


Posted by John McIntyre at 2:05 PM | | Comments (18)


I'm not a scholar of any sorts. However what really bothers me about this notion other than what you already stated is the fact that an already successful, written work is being changed, perhaps without the owner's consent. Whoever owns the rights to this work, should be shot for allowing this to happen.

I'm not sure sure how this works, but who gives them the right to change somebody's work? Also, even if they have procured that right, is it still ethical? It seems like it should be illegal (or some sort of plagiarism) and as far as I am concerned, its spat in the eye of the author.

I think Mr. Twain would be rolling in his grave.

I hate to beat a dead horse, but this really does bother me. Let's change Gone with the Wind, and the Diary of Anne Frank too while were at it.

Doesn't this somehow corrupt freedom of speech?


@John A., Twain's work is now in the public domain; so even if a copyright violation were the issue, it is no longer at issue.

Mr McIntyre impaled the heart of the matter with the single descriptor feckless; which, with its emanations of incompetence, cluelessness, and a hint of rigid adherence to ideology, is spot-on.

John A.: All of Mark Twain's work published in his lifetime, including Huckleberry Finn, is now in the public domain. People can write parodies of it, write sequels to it, and rewrite it at will (all of which have already happened many times.) I consider this to be a Good Thing overall.

I detest bowdlerization too, but I was also the kid who read Tom Sawyer in kindergarten and caused a classmate to burst into tears when I referred to her with That Word in all innocence. Gwen, I'm sorry.

If white people (at least you didn't say white folks) shouldn't use the word casually, does that mean blacks can? Or should we all only use the word - and others in the same category - seriously? As for the new and "edited"versions of anthing, there is nothing to be done about works in the public domain. But like the damage done to music by meddling publishers, we can restore the original and descry the 'corrections.' I suspect that money has a hand in all this, and an urge to get his 15 seconds of fame on television. Larry King retired too soon for this fellow, but I'm sure he can find other takers.

//If white people (at least you didn't say white folks) shouldn't use the word casually, does that mean blacks can?//

Yes. Or, at least, "yes, without nearly the stigma that attaches when white folks use it." On the same principle that there are all sorts of words you can use to hail your friends that you wouldn't use to greet strangers with. Wow, that was tough.

//But like the damage done to music by meddling publishers, we can restore the original and descry the 'corrections.'//

Well, the original hasn't been affected. (I just checked my copy, and The Word is still there.) It doesn't need to be restored. You might mean "decry"; nobody seems to have had much trouble descrying the change. Though I don't think I've heard anyone call it a "correction."

//I suspect that money has a hand in all this//

Based on some evidence, or on the sort of generalized belligerence that makes Fox viewers think climate scientists are just in it for the grants and babes?

Look. I don't like the change, and I don't think it was necessary or smart. But if someone's coming around confiscating copies (or mandating that the bowdlerized version be used in schools), news hasn't reached the provinces here. I have a feeling that, as with many such efforts in the past, this one will be fought out in the arena of public opinion.

Honestly? Having done considerable in the doctoring way in my time, if I saw a Young Reader picking up a sanitized Huck instead of another Teen Werewolf novel, I'd count it a victory for the good guys.

It is indeed a hateful word although at that time, while it was a word of scorn, the "N" word was in common use and did not have the same amount of venom attached to is as is the case today. Not only is the text of an extraordinarily good novel being changed to suit the sensitivities of the milksops in today's, it is also another example of of how revisionist history takes place. The book was written by an author that knew exactly what he was writing. Please let the damned thing alone!

I think that milksops - o wonderful, glorious word - have no sensitivies, but are exceedingly worried that others might. They surely have no spines. I think works should stand on their own, without meddling from anyone - regardless of intention. And we all know about the risks of good intentions. Meanwhile, I should look for other occasions when the use of "milksops" is called for. Hey Ho!

Well said, Mr. McIntyre.

Hmm.... kind of a weird irony that we should be discussing Twain's 'generous' use of the "n" word as it appears in one of his most beloved and historically relevant novels, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn', on this most hallowed and solemn day, when we celebrate, as one People and one Nation, the incredible life and lasting legacy of U.S. civil-rights pioneer, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.; who fought w/ every fiber of his being, and ultimately gave his very life, for our equal-and-inalienable human rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as embedded in The Constitution, irrespective of race, ethnicity, or gender. Indeed, how very ironic. (But is there ever a RIGHT time?)

IMO, in the Rev. King's valiant attempt to always appeal to those 'better angels' amongst us, following the most nonviolent, least hateful path toward social-justice- for-all, nonetheless, he would surely have railed against the flagrant use of the "n" word, and championed its expulsion from the popular lexicon (in both Black and White circles); but who, if he were living today, would likely heartily defend Twain's use of that confounded "n" word in his fictional 'Huck Finn', arguing that its use reflected an actual, yet ugly, societal reality of the times in the 19th century Deep South, the context of Twain's compelling narrative.

As much as the "n" word was used by white Southerners to largely debase, and keep the black man down, and in his 'rightful' place (nothing short of a beast of burden in many white Southerners' view), Twain clearly recognized (but did not necessarily condone), the inherent 'power', and impact the "n" word projected throughout Southern society during that period in the nation's clouded history. It couldn't be ignored in his eyes.

By avoiding the use of the "n" word-----an intrinsic part of the white Southern vernacular (amongst racist and non-racists whites alike)------Twain must have realized that much of the authenticity of his novel's crucial dialogue would have been eviscerated. (Or, as our esteemed blogmeister, Mr. Mac, might say, "castrated". HA!)

As we know, today, within a segment of the greater-African-American community, particularly within the musical realms of both hip-hop and rap, several high-profile 'artists' (Snoop Dogg, and his 'gangsta' ilk), have co-opted the controversial "n" word, injecting it, w/ some regularity, into their 'song' lyrics, along w/ such other debasing, dared I say denigrating, terms as the seeming ubiquitous "bitches" & 'hoes"; in my mind, reflecting an intended cavalier, and misogynistic 'vibe' that pervades much of this urban, mean-streets-inspired, often anger-imbued, 'bling'/ material-focused, genre of Black music.

Many young blacks these days (not necessarily those involved in music, or sport), see no harm ("no big thang") in using the "n" word amongst themselves, and have elevated the once-taboo, nasty word, to a term of mild endearment, infusing it w/ a shared positive meaning, completely disassociating themselves in its frequent use from the once degrading and dehumanizing term of abject racist ridicule of old; basically taking it completely out of its original historical context.

Yet, among white folk today, the use of the "n" word still carries huge negative 'baggage', haunting echos of that bygone era when the black man in America was regarded and treated as a mere chattel, to be bought and sold to the highest (white) bidder------- a "slave". A white dude, today, uses the "n" word at their own risk. Just sayin'.

Auburn's Prof. Alan Gribben , IMHO, has performed a major injustice both toward those future students who will be obliged to read his expurgated 'Huck Finn', w/ the
totally bogus term "slave" replacing Twain's original "n" word, but more significantly, toward, the author himself, Mark Twain, whose original text (as dissonant to today's politically-correct ear it may ring), was nevertheless an ungilded, brutally honest portrayal of that racially polarized era in the American South.

For editor Gribben to have tampered w/ and distorted Twain's vision of his times, is both a literary and academic travesty, and just plain WRONG. Period.

Indeed, Samuel Clemens SHOULD be rolling around in his grave, about now, over this whole "n" word kerfuffle. Twain hardly suffered fools gladly.

Taking full advantage of public-domain is one thing, but crass, politically-correct, inaccurate distortion of the historical truth, and a great American writer's masterful interpretation of that truth, is a whole OTHER kettle of red-herrings.

Something, indeed, smells very fishy on the Mississippi.


Lord knows I don't want to use the miserable word - I was raised to think that words like that were just plain rude. Neither do I like the word ***** for females, which seems to be the purview of 14 year-old girls (what DO they teach in public schools?), prisoners of both sexes and pornographers. But it gets a lot of use and no one seems to howl about that. Now, just why is that, do you suppose?

I would say that Mark Twain is probably chuckling to himself in his grave right now. People can choose to buy the original version of his greatest novel, or the bowdlerized version (class, contrast and compare). In addition, there is the newly released unexpurgated first volume of his autobiography. He's having quite a moment!

Hi Dahlink,

Interesting that you should bring up the recently released "Autobiography of Mark Twain/ Vol 1".

I just happen to have received said volume as a requested Xmas gift from my girlfriend-------a hefty tome of such sheer 'weight', both literally (poundage), and figuratively (content-wise), that i think I may have induced a mild hernia initially attempting to merely lift this most weighty publication.

Sadly, my initial eager anticipation to just dive, head-first, right into this prized collection of Twain's unexpurgated thoughts and personal observations, was markedly tempered by the teensy-weensy print size, and the seemingly endless stream of "explanatory notes", footnotes, and the like. (Ugh!)

Unfortunately, my close-up/ near vision these days is weak at best, so faced w/ oceans of minute prose---even the finely-honed, visually rich prose of a Mark Twain----becomes a bit of a physical challenge. I know---- "Just get some decent reading 'specs', darn it. Dah?"

I've come to the realization that this much anticipated-by-many first installment of Twain's autobiography is basically structured as a thoroughly annotated, scholarly, academic text, and as such, requires extreme patience and concentration on the readers part while wading thru this seemingly infinite sea of microscopic, intellectually dense copy. Folks, don't expect many pictures, or visuals.

Clearly, this is NOT a light and breezy read, to say the least. Nor was it intended as such. IMHO, Twain's non-fiction personal musings cannot compare to his flights of fancy, and complexity of character portrayal that inhabits his 'invented', fictional worlds.

Admittedly, I haven't, as yet, done my due diligence w/ this handsomely presented volume (a vintage B&W cover-photo of a pensive, slightly worried looking Twain looking up and off to his immediate left). So hopefully, at some point, after I've had a chance to wade more deeply into its myriad shoals, eddies, and undercurrents, I'll come back w/ a fairer, more accurate, less cursory assessment of this imposing, historically most significant compilation. (Will definitely get some better reading glasses........ or a giant magnifying glass. HA!)

Dahlink, you are likely spot-on w/ your vision of Twain "chuckling in his grave right now". Although a man of profound thought, and incredible proven literary genius, Twain's lively sense of humor, the ironic, the absurd----in sum, modern man's bent for folly--- appeared to always be percolating close to the surface of his writings. And when it emerged, one felt like one was chuckling right along w/ this born humorist, never at him----scribe and reader both in on the joke, for all its worth.

I'll be back w/ more tales from the Mark Twain 'crypt', but don't hold your breath. HA!


Well said, Mr. McIntyre. Thank you for your sagacity (a word I learned while reading Roughing It).

As for " the great flaw in the original Constitution", I wonder what would have happened if slavery had been dealt with differently. A Constitution that abolished slavery outright would probably not have stood much chance of adoption by the southern states, and one that enshrined it permanently (rather than allowing it to be revisited in 1808 per Art. I, sec. 9) would likely have been a deal breaker for the north.

So was it worth the compromise in order to establish the new Constitution, or was it a great flaw that could somehow have been avoided? It certainly did not keep us from fighting the Civil War (which of course ended in a preserved union), but without it we might have not been able to avoid a north/south split in the first place.

Timotheus: The Framers were no fools. I doubt anyone today could craft such a document.

Forgive me if I've told this here before:

In the early 40s, when my mother was in High School in Tennessee, students bought their own books. Mother's had all come down the line from her oldest brother who, 10 years earlier had gotten his books used. Her English class was reading Shakespeare aloud and she was called upon to continue reading just at what she always described as, "A very embarrasing piece with the names of personal body parts!" When she was sure that she could not be any more humiliated, some girl behind her cried out, "Teeeeacher! Those wuhds ahr not in mah book!"

Mama's descendents are united agin this re-write!

Eve, love that story!

Alex, thanks for the heads-up on the mighty volume one of the Autobiography. Fortunately, I just ordered new glasses.

Well said, that man. I'm sick of prescriptivists' chainsaw decibel levels.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
Baltimore Sun Facebook page

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected