Mark Twain Gets Cleaned Up

Some years ago, my mother-in-law, a theatre director, staged a production of South Pacific at a high school whose students were about 80% Asian, including many of Japanese heritage.  Because it made no difference to the plot, she changed or eliminated the derogative term “Jap” from the script.  Now, a new edition of Mark Twain’s classic novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is about to get the same treatment.

In this edition, all instances of the “N-word” will be replaced by the word “slave”.  The book will also be stripped of the word “Injun”.  According to Twain-expert Alan Gribben who is behind the new version, this is simply an attempt to update the original.  “This is not an effort to render Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn colorblind,” he said in an interview with Publisher’s Weekly.  “Race matters in these books.  It’s a matter of how you express that in the 21st century.”

I can sort of get where he’s coming from — better to have people read a watered-down version than to not have them read it at all.  Still, I think that it was written the way it was written to better make the point that race is a ridiculous criterion by which to judge people.  I can’t help but wonder if that point might be lost by changing the focus from racism to slavery.  In this case, I believe, the offensive word is indeed central to the plot.

Further, as Twain himself wrote in an 1888 letter, “The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

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