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[A brief tangent in a series on editorial shenanigans. Series begins here.]

mark twain scowling

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.
Mark Twain, letter to George Bainton, Oct 1888

JUST as I sat down to write the last installment in this series on editing reality to suit our preferences, news breaks about a professor in Alabama who’s releasing new editions of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer to suit his preferences — among other things, replacing 223 occurrences of the word “nigger” with “slave.”

This is EXACTLY what I’m on about. So my last post will have to wait for a passing Twain.

This particular edit presents more than one problem. All black characters, freed and not, are referred to as “slave” in the new edition. In addition to confusing matters, this kills the powerful linguistic subtext in the original, which reflected the common white attitude of the time toward freed slaves: “Maybe you’re free,” said that subtext, “but you’re still a nigger.” (And yes, despite Roger Ebert’s preferences, the word was already a documented insult 50 years before Huck.)

Another problem: Huck Finn was one of the first American novels written in a regional vernacular. Twain himself was very particular about word choice and chose “nigger” to reflect that vernacular and those attitudes. But oh well. To paraphrase myself, if future readers of the Gribben edition want a window into the everyday life of the 19th century, they’ll be out of luck. But if they hanker to know what a 21st century person thinks they ought to know about life in the 19th century, boy will they have the right book.

Finally, there’s the pretty certain fact that Twain would shit blazing coals over this. And authorial intent is (or should be) the highest editorial court, especially when the author isn’t around to loose the defecatory fireworks himself.

Gribben attempts to bring the Harlem Renaissance into his corner, noting that in his 1940 autobiography The Big Sea, Langston Hughes made a plea to remove the word from all literature: “Ironically or seriously, of necessity for the sake of realism, or impishly for the sake of comedy, it doesn’t matter…Negroes do not like it in any book or play whatsoever, be the book or play ever so sympathetic.”

But even Hughes isn’t entirely with Hughes on this one. He used the word searingly in more than one poem, including 1931’s “Christ in Alabama”:

Christ is a nigger,
Beaten and black:
Oh, bare your back!

Mary is His mother:
Mammy of the South,
Silence your mouth.

God is his father:
White Master above
Grant Him your love.

Most holy bastard
Of the bleeding mouth,
Nigger Christ
On the cross
Of the South.

The poem would lose all effect without that word. Hughes apparently agreed, since he reissued “Christ in Alabama,” complete with “nigger,” in 1967. In any case, it’s doubtful that Hughes would have relished the idea of an editor making the post-mortem decision for him.

Several black commentators before and since the Gribben story have added nuance to the discussion and as far as I can see come down primarily against the revision.

Yes, the print run for the Gribben edition of Twain is pretty small. But like the Ray Comfort edition of On the Origin of Species (complete with a “clarifying” creationist introduction), future readers will now have even more reason than usual to wonder just how many grimy revisionist fingers have been at work since the manuscript left the author’s pen.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.