A Sign of the Times in Book Publishing: New Edition of Huck Finn Censors the “N” Word

I recently read that the publisher of Mark Twain’s books Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer will release a new combined edition of the books that will replace the word “nigger” with the word “slave” in an effort not to offend readers. The new versions without the “N” word are scheduled to be published in February 2010.

Twain scholar Alan Gribben, who is working with the publisher, said the racially offensive slur appears 219 times in the book. He said the word puts the books in danger of joining the list of literary classics that Twain once humorously defined as those “which people praise and don’t read”.

Gribben said

It’s such a shame that one word should be a barrier between a marvellous reading experience and a lot of readers.”

However, it is not just one word that the publisher is changing. In addition to replacing the racial slur, Gribben changes the villain in Tom Sawyer from “Injun Joe” to “Indian Joe” and “half-breed” becomes “half-blood”.

I am sorry, but what the publisher is doing—that, I find offensive.

In my humble opinion, you cannot replace an era, or hide it or say it did not exist!

The reality is, at the time the books were published, a great majority of white people thought that using the word “nigger” to refer to a black person was acceptable. Using that word in books in that context is extremely relevant, and a sign of the times.

When you edit that word in a book, you change the entire history of the story and the author’s intent. What does that say about the banning or censorship of books? The desire to censor classic novels to exclude words or phrases that somebody finds offensive is not only an assault on literary art, but a statement that you aren’t mature enough to handle reading them.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, originally published in the US in 1885, is the fourth most banned book in schools, according to Banned in the U.S.A. by Herbert N. Foerstal, a retired college librarian who has written several books on constitutional freedom of speech issues.

Classic works of literature such as Huckleberry Finn and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men were among the top 10 most frequently challenged books from 1990 to 2000, according to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Of the 448 recorded challenges in 2001, the most often challenged were those in the Harry Potter series, for its focus on wizardry and magic and “satanic influence”.

The aim of book banning (in most US case law) is to prevent authors from corrupting the minds of youth, to protect youths and to control classroom curriculum. These legal challenges come mostly from public school libraries. However, in 1982, the landmark case of Board of Education, Island Trees School District v. Pico found that school officials cannot remove library material because they disagree with the ideas behind it. Protecting the rights of students to express as well as receive information, the US Supreme Court ruled that a book or periodical must be “pervasively vulgar” to constitute adequate ground for banning. The school board had removed Slaughterhouse-Five (Kurt Vonnegut Jr.), The Naked Ape (Desmond Morris) and Soul on Ice (Eldridge Cleaver) from the school library for being “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy.”

Nevertheless in a country that says it strongly believes in free speech (the First Amendment rights of the United States Constitution prohibits the making of any law infringing on the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press…), the censoring of classroom curricula, the banning of books in schools and libraries and the desecration of classic works such as Twain’s continues to this day.

Most can agree that “nigger” is an ugly word. That said, it’s still a part of the US and other nations’ history, and to pretend otherwise is thoughtless and unfair to those who had to live through it and their descendants. To hide the historical truth (ugly as it may be), by changing this perspective fails to show today’s and future generations how far we have come as a society—how much progress we’ve made, and how much still has to be made.


  1. Fantastic discussion, Yosie. I have similar feelings about these changes, that books such as these give us an opportunity to discuss past viewpoints and language. I suppose publishers see all of this as a little more fluid, since these words could have been changed in the original editing of the book, so what they are doing is updating the editing for a new edition. Thankfully we still have previous editions to refer back to.

    I have also wondered about Lawrence Hill’s wonderful novel The Book of Negroes, how it was retitled as Someone Knows My Name for the U.S. market. I wonder if it is similar forces at play.

  2. Fully agree Yosie. If only we could get Mark Twain’s reaction to these editorial changes….. I find it difficult to believe that a Twain scholar would support making such revisions, Twain himself wrote in 1888, “…the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter.” More Twain quotes on Words: http://www.twainquotes.com/Word.html

  3. Antonin I. Pribetic


    A very thoughtful post. Yours is a clear voice resonating in an otherwise clamorous wilderness of political correctness and censorship. To divorce historical and cultural context by removing racist epithets in a literary novel, is the height of stupidity.

    Instead of sanitizing Huckleberry Finn, why not allow schools to force their students to apply critical thinking and literary criticism? Huckleberry Finn is a classic illustration of Socratic irony in juxtaposing the moral contradictions of slavery from a first person narrative, by an author who, himself, experienced an epiphany and moral awareness about the injustice of slavery in his lifetime. As Dr. Shelley Fisher Fishkin,in her essay, Teaching Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn notes:

    “One must be skeptical about most of what Huck says in order to hear what Twain is saying. In a 1991 interview, Ralph Ellison suggested that critics who condemn Twain for the portrait of Jim that we get in the book forget that “one also has to look at the teller of the tale, and realize that you are getting a black man, an adult, seen through the condescending eyes — partially — of a young white boy.” Are you saying, I asked Ellison, “that those critics are making the same old mistake of confusing the narrator with the author? That they’re saying that Twain saw him that way rather than that Huck did?” “Yes,” was Ellison’s answer.”

  4. Yosie

    Great post. This topic made the PM curent affairs programme on BBC Radio 4 yesterday – a discussion between John Sutherland, who made a poor fist of defending the changes on the basis of needing to get HF read, and Jeanette Winterson, who argued passionately against the interference.

  5. Thomas Bowdler types never die. They’re just reborn with a different red pencil.


    What’s next on their hit list? A cleaned up version of a play by well-known English playwright (unfortunately long-deceased) that contains some scurrilous remarks about a major charcter who is a person of colour?

    Maybe we should check the KJV version of the NT. I’m sure there’s a few offensive words there, too.


  6. Yosie,

    My wife (an elementary librarian) and I had this discussion last night, and really couldn’t come up with an answer to the issue. When issues like this come up in local schools, the teachers, parents and school administrators battle over these issues of what the schools find appropriate for their students, and what the parents find appropriate for their children. Words have power… and I can imagine a protesting parent giving this argument on why the book can’t be a part of the library’s collection:

    Parent: What would happen if my child called someone a nigger?
    School: He would most likely be suspended.
    Parent: What if he just shouted out the word in class and it wasn’t directed at anyone?
    School: He would most likely be suspended.
    Parent: Could he read this book aloud in class without being suspended?
    School: Yes, if the teacher is present.
    Parent: Could he read it aloud on the playground at recess to other children, if there are no teachers directly supervising him?
    School: Yes/No/I don’t know… (my guess here is that the school administrator would likely want to say “Yes”, but would more likely say “No” and give a reason that the child really needs to understand the context of the word, and without supervision, the words might not be properly understood (and could be deemed harmful to others listening.)

    So, it is a difficult situation that schools find themselves in… trying to educate children, provide an uncensored collections in the library and adhering to First Amendment rights, free speech, and allowing children to think for themselves while guiding them as the same time … plus, having to handle the standards of the community, and remembering that the parents of the students also have a say in what the child is allowed to read or not read from the school’s collection.

    The dilemma is this: If given the choice that a student can read a censored version of Huck Finn or not at all, does the school have to choose the “not at all option”? Is a child worse off for reading the censored version or not reading it at all?

    Neither my wife or I could really come to a decision on this. Morally, we say “no censorship”, but logically we have to wonder if standing the moral high-ground and not allowing a censored version of the book in the collection is a victory for free speech, but a defeat for the student that is banned from reading the book altogether? We did come to the conclusion that we would most likely stand on the side of not censoring the book, but prevent the child from checking out the book or be included in the classroom discussion of the book if that is the parent’s wish. Victory for Huck Finn… the child will have to read it when he’s in college and his parents can’t force the school to follow their wishes.

    Of course, I do love the fact that the full uncensored book is available for free online with services like Google Books. Perhaps the benefit of having the battle is to stimulate the students’ curiosity to go read it and see for themselves what all the fuss is about.

    Thanks for such a thoughtful post!!

  7. Because this book was published before Steamboat Willie, its copyright has passed to the public domain. Aren’t we just as free to re-publish the original as this publisher is to remix it?

    The question of which version is bought by schools seems like a question of educational policy than censorship.

  8. Hi Greg… Thanks for this very good account… I understand the dilemma the schools and parents have; however, I truly believe it does not come from reading classic literature with the word nigger in it.

    Today’s Rap music uses the word so perversely it offends me to no end, and what do most of our youth listen to… rap music without any context!

    I would rather have my child read the uncensored version of Huck or any other classic from that era, so that he or she really understands the meaning of the word, where it comes from, how and why it was used, by whom, so that he or she knows not to use it and that there is no longer a context for it, and should never be again.

    Our children will never get it if we shield them from the past instead of teaching them about the past and its beautiful and ugly realities. They need to know they are responsible for these events never happening in the future! I know it is a lot, but they are the future.

    I am sure reading those classics the way they were written had an impact on my life, my thought process and who I am today.

  9. It might be helpful to read the introduction to the new edition by the editor to give us his side of the discussion:

    An excerpt from the editor’s introduction to Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: The NewSouth Edition

  10. Who better to turn to than the genius himself, Mr. Mark Twain shed some light on the issue of censorship? You will all be interested to read this excerpt from the recently published first volume of his autobiography:

    Excerpt From ‘The Autobiography of Mark Twain’

    About once a year some pious public library banishes Huck Finn from its children’s department, and on the same plea always—that Huck, the neglected and untaught son of a town drunkard, is given to lying, when in difficulty and hard pressed, and is therefore a bad example for young people, and a damager of their morals.

    Two or three years ago I was near by when one of these banishments was decreed and advertised, and I went over and asked the librarian about it, and he said yes, Huck was banished for lying. I asked,

    “Is there nothing else against him?”

    “No, I think not.”

    “Do you banish all books that are likely to defile young morals, or do you stop with Huck?”

    “We do not discriminate; we banish all that are hurtful to young morals.”

    I picked up a book, and said—

    “I see several copies of this book lying around. Are the young forbidden to read it?”

    “The Bible? Of course not.”

    “Why not?”

    “That is a strange question to ask.”

    “Very well, then I withdraw it. Are you acquainted with the passages in Huck which are held to be objectionable?”

    He said he was; and at my request he took pen and paper and proceeded to write them down for me. Meantime I stepped to a desk and wrote down some extracts from the Bible. I showed them to him and said I would take it as a favor if he would attach his extracts to mine and post them on the wall, so that the people could examine them and see which of the two sets they would prefer to have their young boys and girls read.

    He replied coldly that he was willing to post the extracts which he had made, but not those which I had made.


    He replied—still coldly—that he did not wish to discuss the matter. I asked if he had some boys and girls in his family, and he said he had. I asked—

    “Do you ever read to them these extracts which I have made?”

    “Of course not!”

    “You don’t need to. They read them to themselves, clandestinely. All Protestant children of both sexes do it, and have been doing it for several centuries. You did it yourself when you were a boy. Isn’t it so?”

    He hesitated, then said no. I said—

    “You have lied, and you know it. I think you have been reading Huck Finn, yourself, and damaging your morals.”

  11. Yosie…. AMEN… Great post… Al of Cleveland

  12. Thank you Connie for the excerpt… it is helpful and necessary for the debate.

    Dale I really enjoyed the excerpt from the autobiography… I am going to the library to get it so I can read more about this author. Thank you Mark Twain.

    Thanks to all who have joined the discussion and provided their comments. I am still interested to know what others think.

  13. It seems to me that by omitting the n word more power is being given to the word than it actually deserves. If inclusion of this derogatory term makes people cringe and uncomfortable then I guess that’s progress. Perhaps, while they’re cringing and uncomfortable they will think about “why” they are uncomfortable. Though so many like to refer to the post-racial error – we’ve not gotten there yet. The proverbial mountain top of which Dr. King spoke so hopefully and eloquently of has not yet been reached. We’re close, but we’re not there. However, as always I remain hopeful.

  14. BTW – the Freudian slip made with “post-racial error” is probably more appropriate than the correct term era.

  15. Susan Orlean of the New Yorker has weighed in with some excellent commentary: http://nyr.kr/hlaq9d

  16. I agree with you Yosie. Please watch http://www.blog.firstreference.com for my post on the issue of political correctness as discussed during my training workshops on workplace harassment and violence. My experience has been that working people are very concerned and that there is a perception out there that we are being drowned in political correctness.
    An ongoing conversation on this topic is very timely. Thank you.

  17. I think every work of art can reflect its time and history and any change in it, in fact, is going to produce a new work which is not supposed and should not be expected to be perceived the same way the original one has been. I agree with Yosie and I think it is a kind of censorship.