“All modern American literature,” Ernest Hemingway once proclaimed, “comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn.’” Despite such accolades, this masterwork from Twain — the pen name used by Samuel Clemens — has been slowly disappearing from American classrooms, a development primarily driven by the novel’s repeated use — 219 times in all — of that uniquely offensive term that we uneasily refer to as the N-word.
Upon publication in 1885, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was almost immediately banned by public commissioners in Concord, Mass., who described it as “racist, coarse, trashy, inelegant, irreligious, obsolete, inaccurate and mindless.” It and “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” have been frequent and consistent entries on lists of banned books ever since.
Twain scholar Dr. Alan Gribben believes Twain’s work offered too much to be cast aside, so a decade ago he approached a publisher with the idea of producing new editions of both “Tom Sawyer” and “Huck Finn” that replaced the offending term with the word “slave.” In an odd twist of fate, however, Gribben found himself ostracized within the Twain community, a victim of the sort of cancel culture he was attempting to work around. He nevertheless stands by these new editions, which he insists represent neither decree nor censorship. Rather, Gribben argues, they are an option around censorship, a stop-gap way to keep (or reintroduce) a seminal work in the curriculum.
Gribben recently spoke with Governing Editor-at-Large Clay Jenkinson. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Governing: Were these new editions of Twain something that grew out of your life’s work?
Alan Gribben: My lifelong project has been a study of Twain’s reading. Twain gave away two-thirds of his books before he passed away and then his daughter sold the remnants, so it’s taken me half a century to track them down and record his marginalia and to try to understand how it all affected his life and writings. So I’ve invested a lot of time and money in studying the man, and I’ve published two books and a number of articles. I wanted to bring “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” back into the classroom, but once the news media got hold of that, a lot of blogs and Internet traffic assumed that I was some yokel Southerner trying to erase slavery from Southern history. That showed such a lack of familiarity with “Huckleberry Finn” that it kind of made my point. Obviously, these people hadn’t been taught the novel in school.
Governing: How bad did it get?
Alan Gribben: My publisher had announced in Publisher’s Weekly that we’d be doing editions of both novels, as well as a combined edition of both novels, which is the way Twain wanted them to be read. Before we could even get the book to press, a torrent of objections broke out on the internet and in newspapers. My hometown newspaper said, “What’s Professor Gribben going to do next? Take the sin out of “The Scarlet Letter” and the harpoons out of “Moby Dick”? The most frustrating part was that the press entirely ignored the fact that we were simultaneously bringing out optional editions that were identically paginated and in Twain’s original language, allowing people to choose how they wanted to encounter these novels.
I came to do this book through a personal journey. I grew up in a small town. My mother was well-read, and she was insistent that the N-word never enter our household. That had an influence on me. I went to an integrated high school, and I saw two boys fighting because one had used that word. That too made a big impression on me. As I started specializing in Twain in graduate school, I was sometimes asked to give readings from Twain’s works, and I found myself, without really thinking about it, translating the word to “slave.” I just didn’t want to say that word out loud, and the audience seemed more comfortable with this substitution. Then in 1991, I moved to a branch of Auburn University whose campus prides itself on its high minority enrollment. At least half of my survey of American Lit students would be African American, and I noticed that when I would start “Huckleberry Finn,” there would be mass absenteeism. The students were voting with their feet. I began to realize that the book was becoming unteachable, even though I would avoid the passages that used the N-word.
As late as 1920, it was considered avant-garde to teach American literature. English classes were about British literature. It was only after World War II that we began to take a pride in our national heritage. From the 1940s to the 1980s, Twain and other American writers were introduced at both the high school and college levels. But in the early and mid-’60s, the courts began integrating the schools. Parents became more conscious of what their students were being asked to read, and we began to meet resistance to this mandatory novel with its 219 uses of the N-word. In many cases, it was the teachers themselves who didn’t want to teach it. Other times it was the school board or curriculum committees. They said, “This work has become incendiary. It hurts people’s feelings. It just can’t be taught anymore.”
One scholar recommended that we teach “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in place of “Huckleberry Finn,” but the language was so dated that the students didn’t find it as engaging. When you get to Mark Twain in the syllabus and you leave behind Melville and Poe and Hawthorne, students breathe a sigh of relief because they suddenly are into a language that sounds like the conversations they have. Twain led the charge to loosen up the English language. It’s hard to replace what he brought to the curriculum. I worked as an editorial assistant for the Mark Twain Project at UC Berkeley for eight years to put myself through graduate school, so I was familiar with the techniques of editing a scholarly edition. I decided to try to solve this problem by at least offering an option to teachers. I’m glad I did it, even though I’ve gotten the cold shoulder at Twain conferences. This has separated me from some of my most cherished friends in the Mark Twain field.
Governing: This had to be hurtful. Why do you think you got this reaction?
Alan Gribben: A lot of scholars would rather not teach Twain than change his language. One group that feels very strongly about this is what we might call “textual purists,” and I can understand why they feel it’s sacrilege to tamper with his language. On the other hand, you can’t find a more commercially minded literary artist than Twain in American literature. He was the original “show me the money” guy. He had his books marketed door to door because he could make more that way than going through retail bookstores. If you could ask him if you could change one word and introduce this work to a lot more readers, I can’t imagine that he would hesitate, not as long as the original was also still in print.
“Twain was not advocating that word, but as a realist, he felt he had to be true to the way uneducated white people talked in the 1840s.”
— Alan Gribben
The other group that objected were people I might roughly call “new historicists.” There’s been a movement in literary and historical studies over the past couple of decades that has looked sternly at literature for traces of racism, gender bias and other unsavory aspects. They feel that students need to see how racist society was. Twain never used that word in his public writings. He “assigned” that word. He put that word in the mouths of uneducated young boys along the river in the 1840s, and in the mouths of people like Huck’s drunkard father, totally uneducated and with a hatred of school and reading. Twain was not advocating that word, but as a realist, he felt he had to be true to the way uneducated white people talked in the 1840s. He used much more respectful terms when writing in his own voice.
The thing that has wounded me the most has been the frequent charge of censorship. People seem to have lost all sense of the real meaning of that word. Censorship is where a government or church issues an edict that a certain book cannot be published or sold or read. A military junta took over Greece in 1967, and it issued a list of prescribed books that were not to be published or read in Greece. “Huckleberry Finn” was the third title on that list because, I suppose, it questions authority. It’s a very subversive book, if it’s taught and read properly. So that’s censorship.
I, on the other hand, have been trying to get around the censorship imposed by school boards, curriculum committees and others and to make it possible to get this book back in the classroom. I’ve repeatedly said that if people would look at this in the right light, I’ve allowed Huck and Jim to float their raft back into the classroom in a way where we can dispense with the time-consuming debate about this word and get to the real messages of the book. There are at least a dozen other editions of “Huckleberry Finn” in print. We’re not censoring it. We’re trying to make the book available to be read and taught. My alternative editions may just be a stop-gap measure, but they might get us through a difficult period here where we’re trying to see whether we could keep this book or throw it to the wayside. And there are a number of people who feel that any book that uses this word for whatever purpose should be cast off as a relic of the past. They don’t care about what else is there. But it’s a heck of a good read, a picaresque book. It’s an American literary classic, and it’s being unnecessarily put aside.
Governing: How well has the book done?
Alan Gribben: My publisher is a small press that specializes in re-looking at Southern history. The majority of the things it brings out are about racial and ethnic wrongs that happened in the past, in both the North and South. I went to them partly because I liked the name, NewSouth. It just seemed right. Most publishers will tell you that your sales will peak in the first year and start going down thereafter, but with NewSouth, the trend has been the opposite. Each year a few more teachers are ready to experiment with it.
Governing: At some point, it has to be a heady and troubling experience to realize, “Holy smokes! I’m editing Mark Twain!”
Alan Gribben: If you’re a good scholar, you bring something to the work. My introductions to these two novels made points that had never been made before. I think I’m the first person to point out what Ernest Hemingway meant when he said that “Huckleberry Finn”was the first modern American novel, which was that it was the first one where the author wasn’t telling readers what to think or how to interpret each passage, or drawing a line at the end of a chapter to make sure readers got it. I have explanatory notes at the back that no other edition has ever had. I tried to embellish Twain’s work, not to exploit it. I wanted to make it even more enjoyable for readers. I was thrilled to be adding to his marvelous accomplishment.
You can hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, “The Thomas Jefferson Hour,” and the new Governing podcast, “Listening to America.” Clay’s new book, “The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota,” is available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble and your local independent book seller. Clay welcomes your comments and critiques of his essays and interviews. You can reach him directly by writing firstname.lastname@example.org or tweeting @ClayJenkinson.