Censoring 'Huck Finn,' the Bedtime Edition

Should the n-word have been removed from Mark Twain's classic? Maybe not, but there is a time and place for cleaned-up versions of literary classics, says novelist Trey Ellis.

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Ever since news came of Twain scholar Alan Gribben's whitewashed reworking of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, the media have -- not completely unjustifiably -- beaten up on the poor, well-intentioned scholar. According to the Associated Press, in his new versions, Gribben changed the word "nigger" to "slave" 219 times in Huck Finn, and four times in Tom Sawyer.  

Look, I write grown-up novels and movies and pack them with as much challenging material as possible. I'm a proud progressive, but my entire career has been spent poking the incurably PC in the eye. There's nothing I like better than calling a spade a spade whenever some well-intentioned person has a niggardly attitude toward the freedom of artistic expression.

And yet … this summer, when I read Huck Finn aloud to my then 8- and 11-year-olds before tucking them in for the night, I, too, made the exact same edits. This fall I read them Ernest Gaines' classic The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pitman and censored that text as well.

While I in no way condone publicly censoring anyone's work for any reason whatsoever, in my home, before putting my kids to bed, I make the rules. At the time, even my oldest wasn't quite ready to appreciate either book on her own. Nevertheless, I wanted to share those two great pieces of literature with my kids without having to try to explain the confusion and pain and nuance surrounding the repeated use of the "n-word."

Those weren't the first times I "bowdlerized" -- some might say butchered -- a classic text (the term comes from the knuckleheaded 19th-century Shakespearean censor Thomas Bowdler). When I was a single dad raising my then 3-year-old daughter, I routinely changed every mention of "evil stepmother" to "witch." I just wanted to read my little girl a nice story, not give her nightmares that every woman I happened to date wanted to force her to sweep all day, live in the ashes of our fireplace and poison her with a shiny red apple.  

I grew up on severely edited classics for kids. I don't think it's any coincidence that Cyrano de Bergerac, A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Count of Monte Cristo are some of my favorite pieces of literature. All were introduced to me in grade school as highly abridged, animated specials starring Mr. Magoo.

So the question isn't to censor or not to censor. Abridged and expurgated versions of Huck Finn have been around for years and are even sold in the Mark Twain House & Museum. The question is, how do we view this latest, juvenile version?

Professor Gribben is a respected Twain scholar; however, this is not a respectable version of perhaps the single most important American book ever. If your intended readers aren't mature enough to understand the context of the entirety of this magnificent work, then doing a "search and replace" of a few nouns won't enlighten them. A truly child-friendly version should probably clock in at under a hundred pages and be clearly marked as only a tool to whet young literary appetites for the complicated wonders that lie ahead.

Trey Ellis is a novelist, screenwriter, playwright and essayist and an assistant professor at Columbia University.

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