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Column - New 'Huck Finn' leaves out 'n' word

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A "cleaned-up" version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has just been published. In this new version, a Mark Twain scholar, Allen Gribben, revised the original by substituting the word "slave" for the "n" word 219 times.

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He wanted to make the book more acceptable to teachers and students, many of whom cringe at the "n" word in that greatest of American novels.

"Finn" has been a target for censors ever since it was published in 1884 - not just because of the "n" word but because the book ruthlessly unmasks, through the eyes of a boy, the systemic hypocrisies of "polite society."

When I heard about the new version, I cringed. How dare anyone change even one word of that masterpiece? It's the book I have read and enjoyed repeatedly more than any other in my long life. In fact, I'm re-reading it, yet again, this week.

I must admit, through the years, I too winced at the "n" word while reading "Finn" - especially after the mid-1960s when I became more aware of the daily cruelties and indignities African-Americans have had to endure. However, the more I read "Finn" the more I appreciated the depth of the book and how the use of the "n" word, like a repeated slashing wound, practically punctuates, like exclamation points, the underlying meaning of the book, which is a savage indictment of racism and, on a larger scale, of man's inhumanity to man.

As characters in that novel keep using the "n" word to refer to runaway Jim, we the readers are constantly reminded - precisely because of that derogatory term - of how Jim - to others - was nothing but "property" to be sold and re-sold with no claims to any share in humanity.

Three-fourths of the way through the novel, there is that revelatory passage in which Huck's mind goes through contortions in conflict with his heart, wondering if he should turn Jim over to the slave-hunters. His "conscience," the false one put in his mind by the pious, slave-holding society, tells him it is morally wrong to protect a runaway. But, Huck's heart wins out. He tosses his conscience aside. Jim, he realizes, is a friend, a human being, a man far worthier of the name than the river-town scoundrels Huck keeps meeting. The "n" word, used so many times up to that passage, reinforces the power of Huck's revelation - that Jim, a kind and loving human being, must not be betrayed.

"Finn" without the "n" word is like writing a book about the 1960s hippy era without using the word "chicks" (for young women). That is the way hippies talked. To recapture that era, writers have to use the words that were used.

Yesterday, I received a copy of the January 16 Dallas Morning News sent to me by a friend. In it is a column headlined "Censoring Twain," written by Trey Ellis, an Afro-American professor at Columbia University. Ellis, somewhat reluctantly, condones Gribben's revised "Finn." Ellis vigorously opposes censorship. But he writes, "And yet . . . this summer when I read 'Huck Finn' aloud to my then 8- and 11-year-olds before tucking them in for the night, I, too, made the exact same edits." While reading aloud, Ellis would say "slave" instead of the "n" word.

I must admit, Ellis has a good point. Responsible adults tell children never to use the "n" word. Will children wonder why this book is so filled with that "bad" word? It's virtually impossible to explain social-literary contexts to young children.

After reading Ellis's rationale, I - also somewhat reluctantly - agree. Children can enter into Huck's adventures with Jim the "slave." Later, when they're old enough to understand context, they can read the original, word for word as Twain wrote it and meant it to be read.

Dennis Dalman, a former reporter for the Echo Press, is a regular contributing columnist to the Opinion page. He is currently the editor of the St. Joseph Newsleader. He can be reached via e-mail at dennisdalman@jetup.net.

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