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The Beehive Asks: Is it OK to change words in classic literature?

MARK_TWAIN_Huckleberry_Finn.jpgThis story about cutting the N-word from two Mark Twain classics “Huck Finn” and “Tom Sawyer” is getting a lot of attention today. Here’s the gist, from AP:

Mark Twain wrote that “the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter.” A new edition of “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “Tom Sawyer” will try to find out if that holds true by replacing the N-word with “slave” in an effort not to offend readers.

Twain scholar Alan Gribben, who is working with NewSouth Books in Alabama to publish a combined volume of the books, said the N-word appears 219 times in “Huck Finn” and four times in “Tom Sawyer.” He said the word puts the books in danger of joining the list of literary classics that Twain once humorously defined as those “which people praise and don’t read.”

The news is definitely drawing some criticism. Personally, I think it should be left alone. There are many things in history that are offensive. Acting like those moments didn’t happen doesn’t help anyone. I’d rather confront and learn from the past.

What do you think? Does changing one word matter?

Responses to "The Beehive Asks: Is it OK to change words in classic literature?"

Famous says:

Ugh. This annoys me.
If Twain has wanted to write “slave,” he’d have written “slave.”
This is art. Let it stand.
It would be like saying: “I like ‘Lolita,’ but that bit with the girl is kind of unseemly, can we just take that out?”
Seriously, what is wrong with people?

Donald Munro says:

Stupid. A work of art is created in a particular time and place. To varnish it to reflect contemporary standards is dishonest. I agree with Famous, above: What’s next? Rewriting the lives of the Roman emperors to take out the debauchery?

Chase Sanborn says:

A Twain scholar is doing this? Ol’ Sam Clemens would’ve turned him into a frog.

Beth says:

They need to leave it alone. Don’t change a classic book.
This is starting to look like something straight out of 1984

I cannot get behind this. History is a snapshot of time. We cannot update the art of the past to reflect the current times. Sure, a book written today might use the term “slave” instead, but that is TODAY.

What else will we change about history?

Stephen says:

The Mona Lisa is okay, but that smile might be considered ‘suggestive.’

“Atlas Shrugged” is pretty good, but Charles Atlas is suing about the name, so let’s change that.

Scoopy is cute and all, but he’s not really ‘scooping’ anything, let’s call him Stingey.

And the capper: The Bible is a great book, but the Mexicans have ruined the name “Jesus” so let’s call him “Stanley”

This is an abomination.

BREAKING NEWS: “Fight Club” to officially change to “Pillow Fight Club”

Michael Medrano says:

No way! Mark Twain’s language reflects contemporary society during that time. I’m relieved to hear, however, that all uanbridged versions will continue to be available. It’s sad that the censored version will be on shelves.

erica says:

Totally ridiculous. Makes me feel like throwing up my hands and asking what in the sam hell is next.

pk says:

Unless the author approves the change, his work should not be changed….period.
It stands representative of a point in time, and that must be honored, and read in context.

Kristie Leyba says:

I think you should only change words when you are translating a book, and even then, you do not change the intent. This idea, as kind as it seems, is skirting a whole lesson that need to be addressed about race, hatred, the power of words and of naming. You want a good adventure? Give your kid the Odyssey or Winnie the Pooh. You want literature, deal with what it is.

Claire L says:

Travis, Perfectly said!

Claire L says:

To add my own two cents. I think part of the importance of the word used in such pieces of literature lies in how uncomfortable the word makes us feel. It’s good to be reminded of the past, it’s part of the process in not repeating it.

Jeff says:

This is sadly disappointing. The book is forever changed…I am happy to have an unaltered edition of Huckleberry Finn.

I fear To Kill a Mockingbird will be next.

Michael says:

Next thing you know they’ll want to change the name of that book about the killer white whale. Moby Penis?

Debora Bolen says:

If we would truly rather “confront and learn from the past,” why does this article and everyone on this post refer to the “the N-word” instead of simply quoting the actual word – even here, in a faceless internet conversation among adults?
If we cannot even type “the word” here when making a literary reference, it should be easy to understand the hesitancy of teachers to use the book in its authentic form in a classroom of minor children (particularly elementary, junior high and high school) where “the word” would be seen repeatedly in print and spoken aloud. (The editor’s stated reason for the word’s substitution is that the book IS being avoided in schools due to its containing over 200 usages of “the word.”)
I am not an advocate of censoring or otherwise toying with any author’s work, but there are already abridged/edited/sanitized editions of this and many other classics. What I find most objectionable is when these adulterated editions are not properly “labeled” (they very seldom are) to enable readers to discern between them and the authentic original works.
If the choice lies between having this classic either read or not read by children still young enough to imagine themselves enjoying the adventures of “Huck, “Tom,” or “Becky” (some perhaps not yet able to disassociate Twain’s use of “the word” from the abhorrence it commonly connotes today), I would support this edition IF the publishers would add the editor’s name next to Twain’s, or the words “School Edition” (or something similar) appeared under Twain’s name, with an explanation of the edits (preferably including encouragement to read the original) provided in the book’s forward.

Lisa Taber says:

Nature knows no indecencies; man invents them. ~Mark Twain, Notebook, 1935.

Famous says:

There is also a larger overarching question here about “art” and censorship, because that’s essentially what this is, yes?

It’s the same feeling I get when I hear music that has been censored for radio. Cee Lo’s “Forget You,” for example, is a great song, but has zero impact compared to it’s original (uncensored) version.

Which begs the question of art versus product. In both these cases (the book and the song) revisions are made to move product. I understand people need to get paid, but it typically doesn’t sit right with me.

Famous says:

There is also a larger overarching question here about “art” and censorship, because that’s essentially what this is, yes?

It’s the same feeling I get when I hear music that has been censored for radio. Cee Lo’s “Forget You,” for example, is a great song, but has zero impact compared to it’s original (uncensored) version.

Which begs the question of art versus product. In both these cases (the book and the song) revisions are made to move product. I understand people need to get paid, but it typically doesn’t sit right with me.

Greg Taber says:

if there are words that we are not allowed to say then there are thoughts that we are not allowed to think.

Jonah Oscam says:

If I’ve learned anything from the “More you know,” commercials, It’s that you should talk to your kids about racism. Perhaps the original masterpiece would be a good jumping of point for this conversation.

Let's change history to make it look like people were always buddies says:

I like this decision.
I also like the updated Shakespeare play, “Othello: the African American of Venice.”

Claire L says:

Jonah, this post did exactly that in our family.

Just a couple of weeks ago I had downloaded both novels onto my kid’s Kindle. Last night, after reading this post, I went in and had a discussion with her about the word, it’s meaning and intent then, it’s meaning and intent now, and why we don’t say it.

Heather P. says:

To quote Twain himself, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” He used the word specifically. Blacks use it to describe themselves in the book as often as whites do, illustrating the denigration that they’ve all bought into. And Huck uses it less and less as his relationship with Jim as a person changes. The words are the words for a reason.

Much of this move, though, is coming from a perception that these are children’s books. They’re being marketed as such. Even the cover image used on this post is targeted at a children’s audience. Huck Finn isn’t typically taught below the 11th grade, simply because the complexity of racial and interpersonal issues is so great, students have to possess a grasp of nuance in order to fully process them.

Twain did not write books for children; he wrote books about children. There is a big difference.