What’s in a word—Mark Twain—sanitized?

January 7, 2011

Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer are once again under siege.  Over a hundred years after Twain’s death, both books will be released in February in a censored format- removing two derogatory racial slurs: ‘injun’ and ‘nigger.’ The editor of the new version, Alan Gribben of Auburn University at Montgomery, claims that he wants to change ‘niggr’ to ‘slave’ so no one will be hurt by the use of an epithet that would have been ever-present in Missouri in the 1820s and 1840s, which is when the books are set.

Gribben’s attempt to sanitize the text of Huckleberry Finn is akin to revisionist history. Once you begin “cleaning up” language that isn’t PC, where does it end? ? Do you reshape characters to meet our image of what the writer should have written or eliminate unpleasant facts so children aren’t upset? How do you maintain the integrity of literature once you start changing language?

An author’s words are sacred and meddling changes the author’s intent. We don’t have the right to change anything an author has written no matter how offensive it may seem in retrospect. Words are of the time they were written and that’s what gives them their importance and weight.

If we want to know what Mark Twain thought about words, here is a passage he wrote to George Bainton, 10/15/1888  “The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightening bug and the lightening.”

Once Huckleberry Finn is sanitized, readers are robbed of the opportunity to have important conversations on race. That is not an opportunity I am willing to concede, in the interest of presenting a different Huckleberry Finn that Twain never wrote.

Eliminating books from a school curriculum deprive students from being exposed to classics which inform us of past times, events, and mores of the day. It is the duty of teachers to put the stories they teach in a context, helping students understand the circumstances and events that were part of the environment where the story takes place. Shutting the door on harsh historical realities by not allowing them to be read and discussed is tantamount to pretending they did not exist. That is dishonest and short changes all readers.

Discover the real Gulliver—read the book.

December 31, 2010

Nothing like a movie? I think not! Unless, of course, it drives moviegoers to the books to see what they’re missing. Gulliver’s Travels, rich in adventure and philosophy, transports readers into unknown worlds. Movies come rated and so should books—best time to read Gulliver’s Travels—7th grade through adulthood. Need an excuse to stay home for […]


Pooh Bear and Christmas Eve

December 24, 2010

Eighty-five years ago this Christmas Eve (2010) The London Evening News published a short story about a boy and a bear written by an assistant editor at Punch named A.A. Milne. December 25-December 31 mark the high point of the holiday season. Enjoy and celebrate the spirit of the season with friends and family and […]


Turn children into lovers of reading—meeting characters worth knowing.

December 20, 2010

Emerson once said “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.”  so just imagine what biographies can show us. I would like to pay tribute to Paul Revere’s Ride by Longfellow, written 150 years ago today. Truth be told, I was never a fan of the poem but I found Paul Revere a fascinating character. Who doesn’t […]


A very sad day for intellectual freedom

December 13, 2010

Liu Xiaobo, serving an 11-year prison sentence, was not permitted to travel and accept his Nobel Peace Prize. It was the first time in 74 years the prestigious $1.2 million Nobel Peace Prize was not handed over. A quote from Kahill Gibran (Lebanese poet and novelist 1883-1931) eloquently captures the gravity when voices are silenced. […]


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