A new edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer comes out in February. (February!)
And I'm surprised and upset about the changes the editor has made. As the saying goes, I feel some kind of way about it.
Alan Gribben (Auburn University) edited the new versions for NewSouth Books. The 2011 versions will remove all mentions of the "n" word and replace it with "slave." Also edited: Injun Joe becomes "Indian" Joe and half-breed becomes "half-blood."
Gribben made the changes to make the books easier for teachers to use in the classroom. He says schools do not teach the books because of the offensive language.
I get it. I know that those words make people uncomfortable. I certainly don't like hearing the "n" word.
But as a mother, writer, Southerner, African American and literature geek (and all my other selves), I say this is a wrong and even damaging way to think about literature. And I'm very concerned that, if Gribben's volume gains traction, it will become the only version of Twain's novels that we read.
And it will be the wrong version, altered from the author's intended text. Altered in a way that pretends that the words Twain wrote were not actually in use during his time. Altered to make it "easier" to teach - meaning it will help teachers avoid providing deeper context to explain how stories reflect the cultural and historical moment; how writers weave in imagination and realism; and what has happened since Twain's lifetime to shape how we say, write and hear the "n" word, "injun," "half-breed" and other offensive terms.
In making the work "easier" to read, Gribben takes away some of the big lessons that we can find in reading.
And I think that "easier" really means that teachers won't have go take some uncomfortable questions from students, but also teachers, administrators and school boards can take the easy way out when parents challenge the book.
Wouldn't it be better to teach Twain's work as part of learning about American cultural history and give students a better grounding in what our country was like for people who didn't look like or live like the founding fathers?
Perhaps by seeing the words used in literature it will help everyone understand what's at stake when those words occur in contemporary popular culture.
I certainly don't want my own children reading sanitized versions of literature. They can read the books as they were written and we certainly would help them understand how the work fits into it's historical period and what has happened to change the way we talk to and about one another.
I want them educated and readied for the world, not raised with a cleaned up version of their own American cultural history.
Read more about the new editions in stories posted at NPR and Publishers Weekly.