Paul R. Lehman, Changing Mark Twain’s n-word to slave is a no no

January 10, 2011 at 12:53 am | Posted in Ethnicity in America, Media and Race, Race in America | 4 Comments
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The Associated Press recently published an article reporting that Alan Gribben, a Twain scholar, published a volume containing two novels, Huck Finn  and Tom Sawyer. In this new volume Gribben replaced the n- word with “slave” and “injun” with Indian. One finds it interesting that Gribben would want to change a few key words in the texts of two of Mark Twain’s more popular novels to try and avoid embarrassment from some readers. To make such a change, in this case of the n-word and the word injun, would do irreparable harm to the works, which are viewed as classics, on a number of levels. Any work of fiction worth its salt should allow interpretations on a number of levels. Three common avenues of approach to analyzing a work of fiction, a novel such as Huckleberry Finn, for example, would be from outside the novel, inside the novel, and on the major characters. In each case, changing the n- word to slave would negatively affect the novel on all three levels.

For us to be on the safe side in this discussion, let us briefly review the significance of the n- word from an historical basis. When African captives were brought to America, the slave traders wanted to remove every ounce of self-value and self-worth from them changed their names from what they were, names reflecting a cultural identify, to that of one that had no value except in the slave culture; and that value was based in economics. The words black, negro, and slave were employed as references to the Africans, although early in America’s history slaves consisted of Indians, European Americans, and Africans. After time and through a series of social and economic changes (see my book The making of the Negro in Early American Literature) all Africans, whether slave or free, were called negroes. The term is from Latin and means black. The n- word carries with it the symbolic meaning of worthlessness or lacking positive value. The word slave does not contain the same sense of value or ethnicity. So these words cannot be used interchangeable with the same effect. Let us see how changing the n- word to slave affects Twain’s novel of Huck Finn.

If we were to analyze this novel from the outside, we would look at what the novel represents as a work, that is, a commentary on America. This commentary would examine various aspects of the society which would include among other things class, ethnic, political, social relationships, violence, and slavery. If the n- word were changed for slave, the reader at this level would be deprived of the basic prejudice of American society for the African/African American. We know from history that for many people in the South slavery was accepted as a way of life. Little thought was given to it being good or bad, just some questions of whether it should be acceptable or unacceptable in a legal and/or moral sense. The issue of slavery specifically with respect to the African/African Americans would be distorted if slave was substituted for the n-word. At this level of analysis all the characters in the novel are symbolic representations of some element of society, so if the n-word was removed from the character Jim, the symbolism would be meaningless. What must be remembered is that laws restricting the lives of African/African Americans were commonplace during the time and setting of this novel, and slavery was a way of life. The novel using this approach to analysis can be seen as representing America.

Additionally, if we were to analyze the novel from the inside, we would take into consideration all the elements of fiction: characters, setting, plot, theme and point of view. What we discover in reading the novel from this perspective is a world created by the writer, Twain that features fictional elements that help tell the story. Again, the setting would give us the time period and place along with the behavior and attitudes of the various characters. Novels viewed at this level can be characterized by the reader seen as the author’s intent to instruct, inform and/or entertain. If, for example, the reader believes that the intent was to entertain, then the focus might be on the humor in the novel. However, if the n-word was removed in general and from Jim specifically, the social and historical value of the word would be lost. Also lost would be a theme of the novel, possibly a young Southern boy coming of age, and the very serious personal challenges he encounters. The simple change of the n-word to slave would present a water-downed view of the social controversy existing at this time and lend itself more to the entertainment rather than informative value of the novel.

Subsequently, viewing the novel at the level of character requires the author to provide all the information the reader needs to carefully access the characters. By taking away the n-word from Jim’s character, Gribben would deprive him and Huck of the most important part of their challenge. For Huck slavery is a part of everyday life as well as positing little or no value in an African/African American. Two things of immense importance impact Huck’s life that deals with the concepts of right and wrong, or the secular law, and the concept of good and bad, or the moral law of the Bible. The conflict for Huck revolves around the fact that what his society says is right, his reason says is wrong, and what the Bible says is wrong, Huck reasons as right. The concerns of slavery and human rights do not exist in a non-descript term as slave because it is not personalized. Twain knew this and overcame it by using the n-word as part of Jim’s identity.

Regarding the changing of the word injun to Indian, the difference has to do with the spelling and pronunciation of a term associate with American Indians. The use of the adulterated spelling shows a lack of respect for the people by the society. Huck’s use of it simply reflects his society’s practice.With respect to the word slave, the word makes no reference to a people with a history, past and present. Americans have been so indoctrinated with the word slave and it association with the African/African Americans that the mere mention of the word slave will conjure up the image of African/ African Americans, even if the references is from the Bible. The same experience does not exist with the word injun.

Finally, if we were to ask what Mark Twain would have to say about such an act of changing his words, the answer is obvious—he would forbid it. For some assurance we might turn to a recent publication entitled Mark Twain: The Divided Mind of America’s Best Loved Writer, by David W. Levy. Levy writes that “He had a knack for striking precisely the right tone—whether in lyrical descriptions of nature, suspenseful fiction, raucous comedy, or vitriolic polemic. He knew exactly the right word and was not shy about inventing a new one if he has to; he fearlessly transformed adjectives into adverbs and nouns into verbs.”

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4 Comments »

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  1. I don’t like those changes to Twain’s work. The original words should be read with the context of the author’s life and times in mind.

  2. I totally agree. These are works of art. ALterning them would be like fixing the smile on the Mona Lisa.

  3. When i visit a blog, chances are that I see that the construction is poor and the writting bad. On the contrary,I could honestly say that you writting is decent and your website solid.

  4. Always an incredible posting after i see this web site along with blogs you possess. Value ones insights.


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