A Monthly Column for Word Lovers
Life on the Mississippi (Improved)
Last month a new edition of Mark Twain's classic novels was published: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in one volume, edited by Auburn University professor Alan Gribben. The book has attracted some press attention for the editor's decision to systematically change two words that occur in both of Twain's books.
In place of Injun, Gribben uses Indian, and in place of nigger he uses slave. Injun occurs mainly in Tom Sawyer where the character Injun Joe (now Indian Joe) figures prominently. Nigger occurs mainly in Huckleberry Finn, where one of the main characters is Jim, a runaway slave.
Why the change? Professor Gribben, who is a Twain scholar and has taught the books for many years in many different contexts, has written a lengthy and thoughtful introduction to the book. In it, he lays out his editorial thinking and how it developed; it seems to boil down to this:
In this edition I have translated each usage of the n-word to read "slave" instead, since the term "slave" is closest in meaning and implication. Although the text loses some of the caustic sting that the n-word carries, that price seems small compared to the revolting effect that the more offensive word has on contemporary readers.
Toning down Mark Twain for mass consumption has a long and full history. The brilliant success and huge penetration into Anglophone culture of his two great novels about 19th-century boyhood arise mainly from the fact that they are masterpieces; but among English speakers who can give you a thumbnail summary of one book or the other, how many have actually read them?
Soon as it was night out we shoved; when we got her out to about the middle we let her aloner and let her float wherever the current wanted her to; then we lit the pipes, and dangled our legs in the water, and talked about all kinds of things—we was always naked, day and night, whenever the mosquitoes would let us—the new clothes Buck's folks made for me was too good to be comfortable, and besides I didn't go much on clothes, nohow.
There you have it: unsupervised same-sex, interracial, intergenerational nudity, under cover of darkness, with tobacco use thrown in for extra kick. It's probably safe to say that no high-school drama-club production of Huckleberry Finn has hewn very close to the original in this respect. There may well be, among aspiring young thespians, one or two who would like to go out on a limb and tell the story like it is; but adults, in their sober wisdom, would override such a rash choice. Professor Gribben has joined the long line of sober adults in deciding how doses of Mark Twain should be administered to students.
"Oh, yes, this is a wonderful govment, wonderful. Why, looky here. There was a free slave there from Ohio—a mulatter, most as white as a white man. He had the whitest shirt on you ever see, too, and the shiniest hat; and there ain't a man in that town that's got as fine clothes as what he had; and he had a gold watch and chain, and a silver-headed cane— the awfulest old gray-headed nabob in the state. And what do you think? They said he was a p'fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything. And that ain't the wust. They said he could vote when he was at home."
Gribben's editing here results in the rather odd oxymoron "free slave." More to the point, however, it causes a bit of cognitive dissonance, suggesting that Huck's racist, good-for-nothing father, in the midst of a besotted rant, would have the thoughtfulness and sensitivity to avoid "the more offensive word" – though it is surely the only one that he would ever use.
Many of the uses of nigger in Huckleberry Finn are in fact reported speech of Jim, the slave – it is the only word he uses for people of his own kind. Here, for example, is Jim's speech in a passage from the book in the original version:
You know that one-laigged nigger dat b'longs to old Misto Bradish? Well, he sot up a bank, en say anybody dat put in a dollar would git fo' dollars mo' at de en' er de year. Well, all de niggers went in, but dey didn't have much. I wuz de on'y one dat had much. So I stuck out for mo' dan fo' dollars, en I said 'f I didn' git it I'd start a bank mysef. Well, o' course dat nigger want' to keep me out er de business, bekase he says dey warn't business 'nough for two banks, so he say I could put in my five dollars en he pay me thirty-five at de en' er de year.
This passage points up a use of nigger that is perhaps the most awkward and difficult for today's scholars and readers alike to countenance: its one-time use as an English dialect word for Negro or black, without any pejorative sense intended. Can it be used this way today? Certainly not. But neither can it be erased from history. Here is Twain's explanatory note at the beginning of Huckleberry Finn:
In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary "Pike County" dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.
Few authors state their intentions so clearly, but here Twain has told the reader that he wrote, painstakingly, exactly what he meant. It would be hard to argue that, in the mouth of the character Jim, the word nigger is anything other than the word for black in what Twain calls the "Missouri negro dialect."
Lurking behind Gribben's editorial choice, and his lengthy defense of it, one senses his hope that actively removing offensive words from the notice of young readers might contribute to their demise in English. But words don't die so easily, and in fact the use of nigger in the works of Mark Twain is one of the very few places in which its appearance may provide teachable moments par excellence: about the power of words, their history, and their ability to mean different things to different people in different contexts. If not in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, where else are young readers and listeners going to encounter this word? They may hear it in the form nigga or niggaz in a rap song; they may see it scratched into the paint in a truck stop toilet stall, or hear it spat out of the mouth of a truncheon-wielding cop in some video gone viral on YouTube. None of these contexts are likely to provide a supervisable opportunity to learn something about the history of the most loaded word in English and why it cannot be used in any neutral way today.
Fortunately for us all, the texts of Twain's works, without 21st-century improvements, have long been in the public domain and are available as free eBooks: here's Tom Sawyer and here's Huckleberry Finn. There are numerous other full editions available online. The books are as refreshing, hilarious, and engaging as they were when they were written 150 years ago, and no English speaker should forgo the pleasure.