The XX Factor

Would Huck Finn Have Called Jim “Slave”?

By many accounts, Huckleberry Finn is a tough book to teach in schools. Publisher’s Weekly says it’s been disappearing from curricula for “decades,” “relegated to optional reading lists, and banned outright.”  The Library Association included it its list of the most frequently challenged books of the 1990’s. All–or at least much–because the book includes 219 uses of the word nigger .

In response to this, Twain scholar Alan Gribben and NewSouth Books plan to release a new version of Huckleberry Finn , bound together with Tom Sawyer , in which every use of the word is replaced by the word slave . (And the word injun is replaced by Indian .) If the primary reason schools have avoided teaching the book was this single word, you’d think the news would have at least some supporters. Instead, it’s been a fantastic occasion for the commenters of the world to bring out the little-used word bowdlerized . Some have even capitalized it, thus returning dubious honor to Thomas Bowdler, whose name became a synonym for a particular kind of censorship when he published expurgated editions of Shakespeare and Gibbon intended to be more apropriate for 19th-century women and children. Twain fans, readers, teachers, 8th-graders: All appear united in their contempt for the need to create a PC version of the classic. One teacher did announce her intent to use the edition-when she’s teaching Fahrenheit 451 .

But Gribben and his publishers are right about one thing: Huckleberry Finn is taught less than it was a few decades ago. Publisher’s Weekly , the Library Association, and Jocelyn Chadwick (author of the essay “Why Huck Finn Belongs in Classrooms” ) aren’t just whisting Dixie when they say the book is in danger of meeting Twain’s own definition of a classic: “a book which people praise and don’t read.” But it’s not the word nigger that’s pushed the book toward that fate. It’s our difficulty, as a society, in openly discussing both our past and our present when it comes to race relations. We prefer to pretend that racist attitudes are so distant that now, in our “colorblind” society, there’s no need to consider how Twain reflected, and yet transcended, the attitudes of his time in his creation of Jim (one of the first fully realized black adult male characters in American literature, and yet still a portrait of stereotype). It’s a far more comfortable attitude that allows us to dismiss Huck Finn regardless of whether he thinks of Jim as “nigger” or “slave.”

Vintage Huckleberry Finn cover image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.