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Grant Horner: Don’t judge ‘Finn’ by use of one word

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Posted: January 22, 2011 9:22 p.m.
Updated: January 23, 2011 4:30 a.m.

If satire needs to be explained to you, you do not deserve its riches.

The raw wounds of American racism may never heal entirely; editing the past will not help.

Auburn University Professor Allen Gribben just published a new edition of Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” — with all 219 uses of the infamous N-word surgically removed and replaced with “slave.” It beggars the imagination which side is nuttier on censorship — the left or the right.

This cripples the story. I’ve taught “Huck” to college students for 16 years, read the book 72 times and can quote long passages at will.

Huck’s journey down the Mississippi with the runaway slave Jim mirrors the American journey — that slow realization that racism is evil, cruel and stupid. “Huck” is one of the funniest, most perceptive, entertaining, perfectly plotted novels ever penned. Poor, ignorant Huckleberry doesn’t want the fine folk to “sivilize” him — like Jim, he just wants to be free.

The worry is the taboo word will stir up racist sentiment or make readers uncomfortable — or both. Can you imagine reading it aloud with whites and blacks present? I can. I’ve done it for years. Who said teaching was dull?

But it’s tough to read “Huckleberry” as actually racist. Huck is a classic “unreliable and naïve” narrator; he hardly understands his world or his own observations.

Personally, I am horrified at the representation of whites in the novel. The white hicks are invariably the worst characters: murderers, child abusers, grifters, drunks and (you guessed it) racists.

Huck’s father, “Pap,” is particularly sickening in his wretched barbarity. His favorite word? You guessed it again. But Pap’s whiteness is described as “a white to make a body sick, a white to make a body’s flesh crawl — a tree-toad white, a fish-belly white.” Lovely.

Twain’s delicate crafting crystallizes when Jim nobly sacrifices himself to save a white boy’s life: so skin color does not actually matter — character does.

Sound familiar in terms of last Monday’s holiday?

Jim is the noblest character in the novel. Judging a book merely by its individual words is like judging a man by his color; only fools judge so superficially.

Jim’s a superstitious fool; yet so is Huck, who plays a nasty practical joke on kindly, gullible Jim — then feels guilty.

Jim is humiliated, and calls Huck “trash.” Now Huck’s humiliated, and grows to recognize Jim as his moral equal, if not his superior. This devastating critique of white cruelty is invisible only to the truly narrow-minded reader.

Huck finally goes to “humble himself” to a (insert taboo word). Now, if you say “slave,” you have destroyed the narrative force. The point is not that it is hard to humble yourself to a “slave” — it’s that it is hard to humble yourself to someone who is a slave because he is … that other, unnameable, thing.

But is the word really that unnameable?

Yale University Press has recently published “The Anthology of Rap.” I daresay we’ll find our word there more than once. One could argue, “Well, it is all about context.” To which I say, “Thank you for making my point.”

Actual racists will find “Huckleberry” rather  unsettling; it is (among other things) a scathing rebuke of institutional racism, the kind of ripping good argument that classical liberalism always mounted, from Milton and Voltaire to Swift and Huxley. It’s what “Saturday Night Live,” “M*A*S*H” and “The Daily Show” are all made of.

We must ask: Who edits these words for us? Apparently, someone who has read them and found them offensive. They wish to protect us. But can’t we do what they have done? Isn’t that what moral strength is all about — making it your own?

Again I say: If satire needs to be explained to you, you do not deserve its riches. Huck doesn’t want to be “sivilized” — he understands fake polite society.

The novel opens with this (satirical) “NOTICE”: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be shot.” Imagine Twain debating hypersensitive editors.

Huck wraps up his story: “If I’d a knowed what a trouble it was to make a book, I wouldn’t a tackled it.”

What a pity if Twain had not graced us with such a masterpiece — and what a pity that some feel the righteous urge to edit it so that future readers will lose their chance to think for themselves.

Grant Horner is associate professor of English at The Master’s College in Santa Clarita and chair of humanities at the Rhetoric School at Trinity Classical Academy in Valencia. E-mail him at His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.



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