who's seen 'em come and go . . . . When I heard about the new edition of Huck Finn that cleans up Mark Twain's pesky use of the word nigger, deja vu of a very real sort came over me. A similar bowdlerization happened at least once before, more than 25 years ago, and I reported on it in my guise as YA columnist for School Library Journal. Courtesy of Mark Tuchman at SLJ who graciously found and scanned the thing for me, here it is again. From the August, 1984 SLJ:
In the YA Corner
North Pulaski Branch
The Chicago Public Library
"Sivilizing" Huck Finn
Despite Mark Twain's notice that "Persons attempting to find a moral in this narrative will be banished," the woods surrounding his Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are thick with thieves; the only thing being banished is this book. While in a gentler time Louisa May Alcott could remark, "If Mr. Clemens cannot think of something better to tell our pure-minded lads and lasses, he had best stop writing for them," the issue today is not coarseness, but racism.
My interest here is in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Adapted, published by John H. Wallace, (John H. Wallace & Sons Co., 1983). A letter accompanying the review copy states, "Very little has been changed. The term "nigger" has been exorcised, as have the stereotypical assumptions that blacks steal, are not intelligent, and are not human." Wallace, who is black, had attempted to ban Twain's book from the Mark Twain Intermediate School in Fairfax, Virginia. "I don't care about the First Amendment. I care about children," he was quoted in the Chicago Sun-Times (April II, 1982).
Now, we care about the First Amendment, precisely because we care about children. But Wallace believes that children—particularly black children—are hurt and humiliated by this book. Since his unsuccessful attempt to ban it, he wrote a "sivilized" version.
But given Wallace's premise that the book is racist, can we say that his "edited" version has rendered it less so? I don't think it has. In fact, I believe he has taken Huckleberry Finn, a book containing some strong anti-racist sentiment, and turned it into a very different book, one that is racist "by omission" (to borrow a phrase from the Council on Interracial Books for Children). Wallace's changes are of several kinds. Most prominent is the complete expurgation (Wallace calls it "exorcism") of the word "nigger," replacing it most often with "slave," and occasionally "servant" or "fellow." Sometimes he omits phrases or sentences containing the offending word.
Wallace says, "Very little has been changed"—"nigger" is a word occurring countless times in Twain's book. It is (and was in Twain's time) an ugly word. "Slave," on the other hand, is only descriptive, carrying no value judgment or emotional freight. For the most part, changing "nigger" to "slave" doesn't distort the literal, narrative sense of Twain's book. For example, Wallace changes "By and by they fetched the niggers in and had prayers," to "By and by they fetched the slaves in and had prayers." Despite the change, readers still know, nominally, to whom Twain is referring.
Twain, however, used "nigger," not "slave," and he used it on purpose. Remember, Huck tells the story, and "nigger" is the word he would use. The point of the story is that Huck is an ignorant, uneducated racist who, when faced with a choice between his racism and helping a slave escape, says, "All right, then, I'll go to hell," choosing to aid his friend Jim, a "nigger."
By changing "nigger" to "slave," Wallace rewrites not only Twain but history, fashioning Huck's society to appear less racist than it really was. Whites of that time did believe "Give a nigger an inch and he'll take an ell," but not in Wallace's book—he deleted that sentence. With Wallace's removal of the "nigger," and his softening of white bigotry in Twain's book, readers can conclude that life wasn't so bad for blacks in the South. Indeed, they can conclude that blacks scarcely existed. By simply referring to them as "slaves," readers can forget why they were enslaved to begin with.
Wallace also changes Huck's relationship with Jim. Huck, by Wallace, doesn't believe "He was a mighty good nigger, Jim was." Instead, "He was a mighty good man, Jim was." In Twain's book, Huck, expressing approval of Jim, says, "I knowed he was white inside." In Wallace's, this becomes "I knowed he was good." Why is Wallace so eager to let Huck Finn off the hook? What was, in Twain, a telling exposure of how racism infects even the most sympathetic of characters becomes, in Wallace, just a coupla guys sitting around on a raft, talkin'. Huck is no Simon Legree. He does love Jim, but cannot escape his own racism entirely. That's the point. The world would be a lot simpler if we had bad guys and good guys, but what we do have is a whole lot of mixed-up, uneasy people positively bustling with ignorance. And that's Huck—us—the good guys.
Look at how Wallace sweetens up Aunt Sally. When Huck tells her a fabricated story of a steamboat accident, the old dear replies, "Good gracious! Anybody hurt?" And when Huck replies "No'm," she's relieved. "Well, it's lucky, because sometimes people do get hurt." Let's see this same exchange in Twain:
"It warn't the grounding—that didn't keep us back but a little. We blowed out a cylinder-head.""Good gracious I Anybody hurt?""No'm. Killed a nigger.""Well, it's lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt."
Different, isn't it? Aunt Sally, sweet Aunt Sally, doesn't care if it "killed a nigger" so long as "people" didn't "get hurt." It is as if she didn't hear Huck's response; like Wallace, she ignores the "nigger's" existence. Wallace reduces Twain's neat irony to a pointless exchange, like Aunt Sally, complacently ignorant.
I can say what I do about these two Huckleberry Finns only because (unlike the intended audience of Wallace's book) I have both books in front of me. I can see that in Twain's book the angels "hoverin' round" Huck's father are black and white, the ones in Wallace's are white and "yaller." (The white angel is still the good 'un.) I can see that Jim calls Huck "Honey" in Twain, but not in Wallace (and that change begs more questions than it answers). What I can't see is what Wallace expects students to get out of his book. Twain's stern moral vision, his irony—the reasons this book is taught—are gone. What's left?
What's left is ignorance. Wallace, who has called Twain's book "the most grotesque example of racist trash ever written" (Chicago Sun-Times, May 25, 1984), has revealed his own; and through his "sivilizing" of Huck, seeks to pass it on.
"I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can't stand it." Me neither, Huck. Have a safe trip.