Editorial: A Step Backward For Free Speech

An article from Publisher’s Weekly reported earlier this month that a university professor and a book publisher have agreed to edit and print a revised version of Mark Twain’s classic novel, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

Dr. Alan Gribben, a Twain scholar and head of the English department for Auburn University at Montgomery, has removed the n-word and “Injun” from the novel and replaced them with the words “slave” and “Indian.”

Gribben said general audiences and school age readers should be able to enjoy Huckleberry Finn without worrying about the barrier formed by racist language such as the n-word.

Gribben’s revision may be understood as a means of reintroducing one of America’s most frequently banned books into the school system, but the new edit alters the novel’s meaning and dilutes Twain’s intended lessons on equality.

“Huckleberry Finn,” set a few decades before the Civil War, is written as a narrative about the unusual adventures of a runaway boy and an escaped slave. The work includes both entertainment and humor, but Twain had an alternative and deeper meaning behind the Southern tale. “Huckleberry Finn” develops a friendship between two characters of differing races that are seen as unequals. Twain’s portrayal of inequality was heightened by the language of the era, including the use of the n-word.

The novel works to illustrate a friendship between boys of differing races.

Based on his literature and personal letters, Twain wasn’t a racist. It is important to recognize that Twain’s choice of language was a deliberate attempt to teach his readers the values of humanity. In the original novel, Twain’s strong language makes an immediate impact and shines an unforgiving light on the flaws of racism. Gribben’s edited version significantly diminishes Huckleberry Finn’s impact and reduces a carefully written classic to a simple adventure book.

Gribben does offer a positive change with his alternate version.

With the new edits Twain’s classic may be taken off the ban list and studied more widely among students, thereby exposing more people to the classics of American literature and the lessons that Twain was striving to teach.

While we understand the complexities of allowing students to read novels with racist language, it is still no excuse to change the original work.

Teachers looking to teach “Huckleberry Finn” should explain to students why Twain included hateful speech in his novel. Replacing the word does not — as many supporters of the censorship argue — help the students.

The only people who are helped by this degrading move are teachers looking for the easiest way to teach the novel.

The alteration blurs a part of American history that many consider shameful. Replacing a word in an attempt to shield younger generations from the hardened truth of history does not benefit our future but rather hinders it.

If we continue to censor, eventually the history that has shaped us disappears. If that happens, what will future generations have to ensure we do not repeat past mistakes? “Huckleberry Finn” presents a starting point for the progress of America’s acceptance of different cultures and individuals.

The edit obscures society’s significant progress into the modern age. Nevertheless, while the issue of “Huckleberry Finn” may simply seem to be passing news, the topic raises questions of censorship and how far some are willing to go in order to protect the public from controversial messages.

Although censorship is beneficial in matters of confidentiality and other special situations, it walks upon the fine line of the First Amendment and freedom of speech.

Gribben’s censorship of Twain’s work may be seen as a censorship of Twain himself, which infringes upon his rights of free speech — albeit many years after his death.

Gribben and publishing company, NewSouth Books, may fulfill their goal to introduce more young Americans to classic literature through this new addition to the literary world.

But the end may not be worth the means, as Twain’s vision for true equality will be indistinguishable from the simple demands of political correctness. Instead of fundamentally altering the classic, teachers should wait until students are at an appropriate age to learn, in its entirety, the true worth of Twain’s novel.