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  • January 7th, 2011

Sticks and Stones and Mark Twain

By Joel M. Vance

You’ve heard of the proverbial camel with his nose in the tent?  The implication is that once you let the nose in, the rest of the camel will follow.  I’ve never had a camel poke its nose in my tent, although once a prairie chicken did peek in, but decided not to enter.

Anyway, New South Books is publishing Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” with the word “nigger” replaced by “slave.”  Other changes include calling Injun Joe “Indian Joe” and ”half breed” instead “half blood.”  Presumably it is less insulting to call a black person a “slave” than “nigger.”   Seems to me “slave” is more demeaning than a word that is an ignorant corruption of “Negro.”

Somehow rewriting Mark Twain is supposed to mollify those who object to the N-word and, I guess, the I-word.

Mark Twain was decades ahead of the country when he wrote a lasting novel about the friendship that developed between an escaped slave, Jim, and Huck, the rowdy white boy.  It stands as a landmark representation of how two unlikely people bridged the gap between the races when that was rare if not downright frowned upon.

“Huck” dates to 1885 when the wounds of the Civil War still scabbed the public consciousness and the Ku Klux Klan flowered.  We’ve never had a time of complete racial harmony, but it was a whole lot more tense in Twain’s time than it is now.  “Huck” took courage to write and its message was powerful.

And it was written in the language of the time when people were called Nigger Jim or Injun Joe and it should be read in that context, not in today’s.  The point here is not whether those words are offensive.  Sure they are, just as are spic, wop, gook, dago, kike or any other pejorative applied to a race, ethnic group or minority.  I’m a honkey or honky, whatever the spelling is.  And with Irish and German in my bloodline, I guess I’m a bit of a Mick or a Kraut too.  Names don’t bother me.  It’s those sticks and stones a guy has to watch out for.

Racial epithets reflect more on the person using them than on the target.  The redneck racist who shouts intolerance is narrow, ignorant and mean-spirited—a useless insult to humanity.  The birthers who maintain that President Obama is not a natural-born citizen wouldn’t be shouting such silly crap if he were a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant.  The gut fact is that they are racist scum, hiding their dirty little prejudices.

They’re afraid to say the word “nigger” out loud other than to their equally despicable peers, but you can bet it rots in their souls.  They mask their true feelings with birther nonsense.   Where their barely hidden message is intolerance, Mark Twain’s was just the opposite

The editor of the sanitized Huck, Alan Gribben, says the flood of emails excoriating him for tampering with Twain proves that the word makes them uncomfortable.  “Not one of them mentions the word,” he says.  “They dance around it.”

Of course it is uncomfortable.  And the book should make folks uncomfortable, not for the use of the word, but because it examines an uncomfortable subject—that’s what good books do.  They make us scrutinize our beliefs and prejudices and, one would hope, deal with them.  “Huckleberry Finn” made many folks uncomfortable, not because of its language, but because it proposed that two human beings of different races could come together not only as survivors but also as friends.

Of the two Jim’s instincts were unstintingly pure; Huck’s corrupt at first, but gradually softening.  Jim never would have betrayed Huck but the reverse was not true for a long time.   Clearly Jim was the more admirable of the two and he educated Huck in how to be human being of tolerance and compassion.

But back to the point—once you start altering or otherwise adulterating the words of a published writer, you have a tent with a great big camel nose between the flaps.   Sanitizing history is what totalitarian regimes do for various reasons, all bad.  And sanitizing history for kids creates a fairyland every bit as unrealistic as the one Alice fell into down the rabbit hole.

Teachers should interpret and explain, not censor.   They’re there to broaden horizons, not narrow them.  Expose kids to ideas and attitudes and guide them.  You can’t keep kids from hearing slurs outside the classroom and you shouldn’t keep them from reading them, but you can put those slurs in context and make them mean something more valuable than trash talk.

More important than the stupidity of sanitizing Mark Twain is the precedent it sets.  There is no end to that slippery slope.  Someone will object to just about anything ever written and if you start kowtowing to every grumbler who doesn’t like a word pretty soon we’ll be back to McGuffey’s First Reader as the only allowable book.

Think not?  Gribben says he is rewriting Twain for schools rather than for the general public.  He is targeting the tender sensibilities of school boards and administrators who would never allow a controversial book to enter their sanitized libraries.  You won’t read “Catcher in the Rye” or “A Color Purple” or any of those other nasty, corrupting books in those bastions of education.  Huck is rated the fourth-most banned book but it has much company—mostly from classics up to and including the dictionary.

Right up there with Huck as a book-banner’s target is Harper Lee’s wonderful “To Kill a Mockingbird.”  Anyone who could ignore the book’s powerful message against racial hatred is a foaming idiot….but some schools have banned it.  Just as they have banned books by Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Gordon Parks, all African-Americans.

I still remember our daughter’s high school English teacher telling us at a parent-teacher meeting that “you don’t have to worry about your kids reading any controversial books in my classes!”  I still seethe about that and it was many years ago.  I still hope that teacher long since has doddered off into undeserved retirement.

But it’s not even a tossup as to whether it’s worse to ban Mark Twain outright from the school library or to soften him.  The Ivory Snow job is much worse because the enterprising child (or his enlightened parents) can find the original Huck in decent libraries or in bookstores.  But if all Huck were made politically correct we would have no way to read Twain as it was meant to be read.

Mr. Twain did not write carelessly.  He said: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”  Mark Twain had the right word and the right meaning for his time and for ours.

He said, “Man is the only animal that blushes.  Or needs to.”  Professor Gribben should be blushing.  If there is any banning to be done, might want to start with him as a teacher.


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  1. Thorn

    January 7th, 2011 at 3:14 pm


    Awesome new website!

    I agree, I can’t stand this kind of censorship, it’s insulting. I’d rather learn from the past than erase parts of it.

  2. Karl Miller

    January 9th, 2011 at 7:59 am


    Joel…Exactly the reaction I would expect from you. The revisionists, the bleeding hearts, the politically correct and other assorted moonbats have either never read Huckleberry Finn or failed to comprehend that Jim is the book’s hero as Twain satirizes by poking fun at the ignorance of the era.

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