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.