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Bill Maxwell

We have no right to alter 'Huck Finn'

That confounded book is making news again, and the controversy is the same one it has always been. The book I'm referring to, of course, is Mark Twain's novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This time, NewSouth Books in Alabama is publishing an edition that elides the N-word all of its 219 times, changing it to "slave."

Over the years, I've had a special personal relationship with Huck Finn, published in 1884. A textual purist, I've always thought the enduring fuss has been much ado about nothing, tiresome nonsense over the generations.

One of my most precious literary possessions is a 1948 copy of Huck Finn published by Grosset & Dunlap for the Illustrated Junior Library (note the word "junior.") My grandmother gave me the novel when I was in sixth grade. A woman for whom she was a maid gave it to her; it had belonged to the woman's Army-drafted son.

I was drawn into the novel the moment I opened the front cover and saw the color illustration of Huck and Jim, the runaway slave, sitting under a tree on the bank of the Mississippi River. Huck and Jim are deep in conversation. Jim, who is fishing with a simple line, looks worried, and Huck appears relaxed as he smokes his pipe. A big catfish, which Jim has caught, lies on the ground between them, and Huck's musket and the rabbit he's killed rest against the tree. Steamboats ply the muddy water, and a lone fisherman in a skiff maneuvers for a good spot.

From the first sentence, Huck Finn captivated me. I liked the scruffy, pipe-smoking 13-year-old narrating the picaresque tale. And although I was black, a year younger than Huck and living in another century, I identified with his unruliness, his many exploits, the small-town ambience and the natural wonders along the Mississippi as it flows through Missouri and Arkansas.

When I first encountered the N-word, on Page 4, I took it in stride. It was a word I was accustomed to hearing uttered every day by blacks and whites. As an avid reader, I was accustomed to seeing the word in stories by white writers and black writers such as Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright. I couldn't count the number of times I'd been called the N-word by fellow blacks, sometimes to diminish me, other times as a term of endearment. The word was part of the fabric of my life.

My 10th Grade English teacher, Gloria Bonaparte, assigned Huck Finn to us, and we read it without a second thought. Mrs. Bonaparte said it was one of the great American novels we should read, and she explained that Twain used the N-word because it was the most natural word for Huck to refer to blacks, given his time and place. We understood.

Years later, after I became a college English professor, I always assigned Huck Finn. I had a potentially career-ending experience when I taught at a state university in Illinois. I had six black students and 15 white students in a survey of American literature course. Five of the black students refused to read the novel, citing the N-word as the reason. I told them that they had to read the book or drop the course.

They went to my boss. He asked me if I would assign the students another novel. I said, "absolutely not." In those days, professors still had some authority. Two of the students relented, read the novel and passed the course. The others dropped out, and I never saw them again.

I had another bad Huck Finn encounter when I wrote for the Gainesville Sun. A teacher at Gainesville's predominantly black Eastside High School assigned the novel and immediately faced a firestorm of criticism. I wrote a column defending her and, of course, was attacked.

During a roundtable discussion at a black church a week after the column was published, I again defended the teacher and the novel. I was denounced as an "Uncle Tom," "a fool," "a traitor" and several profane names. A man called me a "stupid n------." Realizing what he'd done, he smiled, sat and remained silent the rest of the evening.

I gave up long ago trying to convince others that the N-word belongs in Huck Finn, that removing it is like airbrushing Mona Lisa's expression to make the painting less ambiguous.

It is clear to me that as Twain employed the N-word, he ennobled Jim, the runaway slave. Jim is the moral center of the novel. He is superior to the whites, even Huck. As a textual purist, I wish we would let The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn be The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn just as Twain intended.

We don't have the right to alter an artist's work for any reason. Authorial intent is unalterable.

We have no right to alter 'Huck Finn' 01/14/11 [Last modified: Friday, January 14, 2011 6:36pm]
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