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Editorial: Keep the N in 'Finn'

One doesn’t need to read far into “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” to realize author Mark Twain took word choice seriously — he says as much in the author’s note.

It seems, however, that the wordsmiths at New-South Books Inc. skipped over that note before taking a red pen to the 125-year-old American classic. They replaced various racial epithets with euphemisms, opting for palatability over critical social commentary — in short, the new edition is a subtraction.

In the author’s note, Twain said seven different American dialects were reproduced with painstaking effort and accuracy, but New-South took it upon themselves to change “nigger” to “slave” because slave sounds nicer.

Hopefully New-South strikes the author’s note, too, lest they turn Twain into a liar.

The visionless revision seems like a progressive move, but it’s an overcompensation. New-South can’t pretend no one used the n-word at the turn of the 18th century; the revision denies a harsh fact and replaces it with a pleasant lie. In reality, the story simply loses some of its strength.

In one section, Huck watches two boys brutally die in a feud between a pair of aristocratic families. He runs in fear and disgust to his friend, the escaped slave, Jim. Here and elsewhere Huck sees savage white people and praises Jim for his humanity — all the while calling him the n-word.

That there irony’s strong, powerful strong.

Slave isn’t even a good word to use in place of the n-word. Slave is an appropriate description of some characters in the book — including Jim. The n-word is not an appropriate description of anyone. It’s an ideological illusion based on ignorance, and that’s a big part of the story.

Some revisions were so slight as to be worthless. Changing “half-breed” to “half-blood” isn’t that substantial — all the change does is attenuate the white ignorance Twain wanted to expose.

It would be unsurprising if New-South initially changed “half-breed” to “Multicultural American.” Never mind, such restraint would require some kind of literary ethic.

All this political correctness, hiding a history of racism behind euphemisms, where does it leave us? In a worse position than when we started. Huck Finn is taught in schools around the country, and students would benefit from a frank discussion about acceptable ways to think about and address people.

Hiding all those nasty words from the youth will only keep them ignorant.

We’ll leave you with a quote attributed to Twain, apropos of this situation: “Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it.”

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