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P.C. insult to a Mark Twain classic

By Ron Powers, Special to CNN
  • Ron Powers says new edition of "Huckleberry Finn" that removes the N-word is an affront
  • New version is by publisher that produces books with sunny view of South, he says
  • Editor Alan Gribben suggested subbing word with "slave"
  • Powers: Some celebrating secession anniversary; edition's timing adds to revisionist history

Editor's note: Ron Powers is the author of "Mark Twain: A Life" (Free Press, 2005).

(CNN) -- The vapid, smiley-faced effrontery of it corrodes the foundations of respect for American literature.

And the effrontery is the least of it.

NewSouth Books' announcement that it is bringing out a desecrated edition of "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" -- in which faceless editors at this distinctly vanilla-flavored publisher will have excised every one of Mark Twain's brilliantly seditious employments of the evil word "nigger" -- has caught the fleeting notice of bloggers and pundits around the country.

The fleeting notice, let us stipulate. Most commentators have contented themselves with armchair witticisms: Next thing you know, they'll be painting Snuggies on the great European nudes and calling Othello a "nice man" instead of a Moor -- that sort of thing.

Keith Staskiewicz of, in a post reprinted on this website, actually refers to Twain's novel as a "product" and yawningly remarks, "It's unfortunate, but is it really any more catastrophic than a TBS-friendly re-edit of 'The Godfather,' you down-and-dirty melon farmer?"

Yes, Keith, it is. It really is.

Censoring 'Huck Finn' and 'Tom Sawyer'

It gets worse: The progressive Mother Jones' blogger Kevin Drum considers the announcement and goes positively limp. "(T)he problem with 'Huckleberry Finn,' " he writes, "is that, like it or not, most high school teachers only have two choices these days: teach a bowdlerized version or don't teach it at all." If bowdlerization is inevitable, in other words, lie back and enjoy it.

But why should this evisceration of America's greatest novel -- let's dispense with that quaint term "bowdlerization" -- be inevitable? Who is NewSouth Books, and by what tradition, by what authority, should its editors be forgiven for disfiguring one of the most challenging, and instructive works of art ever published?

The "who" of NewSouth: It is a Montgomery, Alabama-based publisher of books with ingratiating titles such as "Alabama, One Big Front Porch," whose grandmotherly author clucks on about how life in the state has always been about folks gatherin' on summer nights to tell tales and to talk family. Selma notwithstanding.

And "The Other Side of Montgomery: Growing Up White in the Birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement," a comfy, Haley Barbour-esque memoir about the "casual neighborliness" of the town in which Rosa Parks risked her life for a dignified ride on a bus.

The question of NewSouth's "authority" leads us into far more provocative territory. The publisher has couched its announcement of the "nigger"-emancipated "Huckleberry Finn" in divertingly unctuous tones.

Its website offers "a word" about the new edition in which it bemoans the original author's use of "hurtful epithets" (including "injun"), which NewBooks has helpfully replaced with "less offensive words." And it cites the wise, enabling counsel of the scholar, Alan Gribben, who "compassionately" urged the publisher along its revisionist course.

Gribben was also quoted in a Publishers Weekly article in which he explained, "After a number of talks, I was sought out by local teachers, and to a person they said we would love to teach ('Tom Sawyer') and 'Huckleberry Finn,' but we feel we can't do it anymore. In the new classroom, it's really not acceptable."

That particular line of apology, as it happens, was brilliantly countered in the December 30 edition of the New York Daily News by the eminent Mark Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin. Responding to an entirely separate attack on the legitimacy of racial slurs in the mouths of Twain's less-than-heroic characters, Fishkin wrote:

"It's ironic ... that the principle (invoked) to ban Mark Twain's anti-racist classic -- that books filled with the N-word shouldn't be taught -- would also ban from the nation's classrooms many of the greatest and most inspiring works by black writers in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Cutting n-word from Twain not censorship

"The N-word is key to critiques of racism found in nonfiction from Frederick Douglass' "Narrative," to W.E.B. Du Bois' "Souls of Black Folk," to Richard Wright's "Black Boy," to James Baldwin's "Notes of a Native Son," to "The Autobiography of Malcolm X."

Fishkin concludes: "To expose a racist society for what it is, you have to show racists as they are, speaking as they would speak. ... Taking one of the greatest American anti-racist novels out of schools because the persistence of racism today makes the book's language painful is wrongheaded and counterproductive."

Is Twain's inspired irony really so hard to grasp? And are today's public school teachers really so enfeebled and so intimidated that they cannot teach it?

The timing is unfortunate. This year is the 150th anniversary of South Carolina's secession from the Union, which ignited the Civil War. This anniversary has been marked thus far by elaborate celebrations -- balls, parades, theatrical re-enactments -- celebrating the great event ("an act of tremendous political courage," a ball sponsor from the Sons of Confederate Veterans called it) and by even more elaborate denials, contrary to overwhelming historical evidence, that the rebellion had anything whatsoever to do with slavery.

Denials and other lies, amplified enough, congeal into contaminated legitimacy -- "fake reality," in Leo Rosten's phrase. Whitewash washes white not only its target but, over time, any memory of the target. That is the purpose of whitewash.

Denying the role of slavery in triggering the Civil War and denying Twain's insight that "nigger" was prevalent and dehumanizing enough in that era to irradiate his most enduring anti-racist literature feed into the same polluted basin: the spreading pool of disinformation about America's past.

Whether these assaults on history are intentional or merely fatuous hardly matters. The people involved, in both instances, should know better.

Oh, and, sorry: It is not enough that NewSouth Books plans to replace the N-word with "slave." Huck's companion Jim is a slave -- no getting around that. But the latter word, unlike the former, has lost most of its emotional impact in this century and a half after abolition.

Call me a cynic. But I know this territory. I've been there before. We've all been there before.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ron Powers.